‘The pain is immense’: Neymar to miss reunion with Barcelona and Messi

Injury looks like ruling PSG’s Brazilian forward out for a month and both legs of the Champions League tie with his former club

Neymar is likely to miss both legs of PSG’s Champions League last-16 tie with Barcelona after suffering a groin injury at Caen.
Neymar is likely to miss both legs of PSG’s Champions League last-16 tie with Barcelona after suffering a groin injury at Caen. Photograph: Christophe Saidi/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock
Neymar is likely to miss both legs of PSG’s Champions League last-16 tie with Barcelona after suffering a groin injury at Caen. Photograph: Christophe Saidi/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock
Sid Lowe

Last modified on Sun 14 Feb 2021 11.41 EST

‘The sadness is huge, the pain is immense, and the weeping is constant.” Neymar had already been hit once and Mauricio Pochettino was about to take him off to protect him when he got hit again. As he left the field on Wednesday in Caen, the Paris Saint-Germain manager put an arm around the Brazilian but there was no consolation. He departed head bowed, broken. Those dark, dramatic words followed on his Instagram the day after. It was happening again and it hurt.

Scans on Thursday showed Neymar had suffered a groin injury and is likely to be out for a month, missing Tuesday’s meeting with his former club Barcelona in the Champions League and, in all probability, the second leg in Paris.

There was something crushingly familiar about it. More than two dozen injuries have interrupted his career, Neymar has missed a quarter of PSG’s Champions League games and this will be the third time he will not play at the last 16 stage. What should be the best moments of his career have been denied him.

In 2018, he missed the second leg against Real Madrid; in 2019, both games against Manchester United; and now against Barcelona. Each time, PSG were knocked out. Last year, available in the knockout phase for the first since moving to France, they reached the final.

In December, Neymar’s father had complained about the “violence” suffered by his son, asking “when will this stop?” and warning: “If we continue like this football will lose.”

This week, it was Neymar. “For a while, I will once again have to stop doing the thing I most love in life, which is playing football,” he wrote.

“I dribble and I get hit constantly. It makes me very sad. It makes me very sad to have to listen to a player, a coach, a commentator or whoever the hell it is say ‘they have to kick him’, ‘he dives’, ‘cry-baby’ ‘spoilt kid’, etc.

“It saddens me and I don’t know how much longer I can take it. I just want to be happy playing football. NOTHING ELSE.”

That response revealed layers of disappointment, different perceived injustices coming together: the treatment he receives and the accusation he invites it; snide suggestions he does not care, keener to get back to Brazil for carnival or his sister’s birthday parties; and the accumulation of moments missed, the denial of another opportunity. It stings to be shorn of the chance to prove something surprisingly large numbers of people still resist: that he could be the best player in the world.

Apart, maybe, from Lionel Messi? Which is another reason. It was striking that when Pochettino was asked if Neymar was badly affected by the injury, he said: “He’s very sad. He was really looking forward to going to Barcelona. He loves Barcelona. He’s a player who loves to play these games, he’s made for them.”

Instead, the reunion with his former club will have to wait. The reunion with Messi, especially.

Until when and where? That’s the question everyone has wondered for a while – beyond this game, which has been dominated more by what comes next rather than what comes now.

When Ronald Koeman and Pochettino face the media on Monday expect them to be asked as much about Messi than a match that, with Barcelona improving and Neymar out, looks more even vital than it did when the draw put these two teams together.

At their previous meeting, in March 2017, Neymar was on the other side; next time, perhaps Messi will be. That night, the Brazilian led the most extraordinary comeback in the competition’s history, scoring twice and providing the pass as Barcelona scored three goals in seven minutes to win 6-1 at the Camp Nou, overturning a 4-0 first-leg defeat.

It had been his grandest night for Barcelona, but the image that immortalised it was Messi and that summer Neymar left for PSG, who paid his 222m buyout clause, sparking a crisis at the Camp Nou.

Neymar walked out and it sometimes feels like he has been trying to walk back in again ever since. Until now. Barcelona repeatedly tried and failed to replace him, up to the point where they tried to bring him home. The players missed him, Messi and Luis Suárez especially. The squad offered to postpone their wages to facilitate his return but it still didn’t happen. “Neymar did everything he could to come back,” Suárez said.

Messi questioned whether Barcelona had done the same, their repeated, public pursuit and failure damaging the club and his faith in them. Together, Messi, Suárez and Neymar won the 2015 Champions League. Apart, none of them have. Rather than be put back together again, that tridente broke up entirely.

Soon there may be nothing left, at least not at Barcelona. Neymar did not come, Suárez was forced out and left for Atlético Madrid, and Messi tried to leave. He was forced to stay; at the end of the season, it is a different matter. This could be his last Champions League tie for Barcelona.

Luis Suárez, Lionel Messi and Neymar after winning the Champions League in 2015.
Luis Suárez, Lionel Messi and Neymar after winning the Champions League in 2015. Photograph: Frank Augstein/AP

After PSG defeated United at the start of December, Neymar said: “What I most want is to play with Messi again, to be able to enjoy being on the pitch with him again. We’ve got to do that next year, for sure.”

Once that would have been read as another attempt to return to the Camp Nou, but this time it was turned on its head: this was Messi to PSG, not Neymar to Barcelona. All the more so when a week later Neymar – who, like Messi, knows they cannot be reunited in Catalonia this year – said he was happy in Paris and that leaving was no longer on his mind.

Was that Messi remark a hint or just hope? Perhaps it was a tactic? Something to help with the transfer and maybe with the tie. Not long after, the PSG midfielder Leandro Paredes said: “Let’s hope Messi comes. We all want him to come to PSG.”

Asked recently if Messi would join him in Paris, Ángel Di María said: “I hope so. There’s a big chance.”

France Football then ran a front page as a football sticker of Messi in a PSG shirt.

Koeman was furious, complaining of a lack of respect. The Catalan daily Sport talked of provocation, of an attempt to play dirty, destabilising Barcelona, which was rich from the paper that had dedicated 50 front pages to the pursuit of Neymar.

Rich from Barcelona too, noted Rudi Garcia, the Lyon coach whose striker Memphis Depay had been so publicly courted by the Catalans. “It seems he likes talking to the press,” Koeman shot back, even angrier now.

Pochettino was calmer, noting that France Football is “a magazine that has nothing to do with PSG” and repeatedly insisting there had been no lack of respect. “He gets asked. What’s [Di María] going to say?”

Besides, the PSG coach pointed out, Messi is in the last six months of his contract and can talk to who he likes. That includes PSG. “All clubs try to improve their team,” Pochettino told Onda Cero. “And it’s normal for there to be calls or talks, which are within the rules.

“What can you say about Leo? He is a machine, built to compete. He is an animal. He loves competing. It’s not playing football, it’s competing, which is totally different.”

That analysis helps explain much, particularly the pain. The Champions League has become an obsession for PSG, Pochettino said, and it is an obsession for Messi too, so much so that he was ready to walk away to pursue it, conscious time was running out and fearful that he could not at the Camp Nou.

“That beautiful and longed-for trophy,” Messi called it, but it can be a cruel one too, a competition in which he and his team have been hurt and humiliated in Rome, Liverpool and Lisbon; a competition in which the only season when Neymar did not sit it out and was able to play, his side were defeated in the final, and in which he now faces the same fate.

Messi has not won this competition since 2015, when he had Neymar at his side. One day maybe they will get together and try again; for now, though, there’s a match to play. Well, for Messi there is. For Neymar, there is sadness and pain, just when he was ready to take centre stage.

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