Neymar, Barcelona need to dry their tears and refocus after UCL exit
BARCELONA, Spain -- As much from a human perspective as a journalistic one, I'd be really curious to know the true reason that Neymar wept his eyes out on Wednesday night. On the surface of it, you might wish to call me insensitive. The biggest prize in club football disappears for at least another season, with club and sponsor bonuses vanishing out the window: What's not to cry about?
Right? Well, just for the sake of argument, I'd have to say that I doubt that's a significant enough cause for Barcelona's troublesome Brazilian star to sit down forcefully, on the edge of the Juventus penalty box, before bursting into tears when referee Bjorn Kuipers blew for full time.
He sobbed so much that three things happened. Dani Alves, his national team ally and former Barca teammate, went to give him a man-hug. But that wasn't a sufficient curative. It took the only Barcelona player who bothered to go and seek out the bawling Neymar, Sergio Busquets, to raise the striker to his feet, escort him across the pitch and lead him down the stairs to the dressing room tunnel.
I mention just as a matter of record that Busquets was the only Barcelona player to bother to find the missing lamb, not to suggest that nobody else cared. While the pair walked diagonally from the penalty box in front of the south goal to the pitch exit where cameras awaited, Neymar pulled his jersey up and over his face to hide the tears, the red puffy eyes and what I reckon was a certain embarrassment. Then, off the pair of them went.
It was a very stark contrast from three weeks ago when Neymar was named man of the match (by a panel including yours truly) and sped through the pitch-side TV interviews, the shower, the hair products, the bandana tied around his head in E-Street Band Little Stevie-style and off into the night to thirstily celebrate his sister's birthday, a party after which he took/was granted the weekend off.
Yeah Barca, way to go! Their budding superstar player gets one big night just right and suddenly he's excused duty because his sister's birthday is more important than three points at Malaga? I don't think so.
On that PSG occasion (and why not), the only thing that was prodding at his tear ducts was a wave of euphoria and joy. How cruel sport -- or is it life? -- can be. Such a wave of satisfaction and praise that night against PSG when, truly, Neymar produced some absolutely amazing skills plus exemplary cold-blooded attitude and now this.
Heaving, wracking sobs. In public. All while Juve raucously danced and celebrated not 20 feet away.
And, so, I'd truly like to understand what caused this sudden tsunami of emotion. There are some candidates for a possible explanation.
On a night that was a perfectly respectable response by Barcelona to the humiliating hammering they took last week in Turin, Neymar appeared to have enemies in the stands behind the goalmouths. Or at least you could be forgiven for deducing that because whenever his trickery won him the right to shoot at goal, he seemed to be picking out individual seats about 30 rows back from Gigi Buffon's goal.
As I say, as if there were people in them who he didn't much like. And so the tears might quite easily have been catalysed by pure frustration. It's the same feeling of impotency that strikes you when you know you've had the chances to complete a piece of work, personal objective or passion project, but something has thwarted you against all the odds. Perhaps it's a little laziness, perhaps bad luck, perhaps an inadvertent lack of attention to something that appeared all too easy but, in fact, was hard.
You know the feeling. You do. Self-recrimination is a bitter bile. Whether it sparks tears is another matter. It can do for some.
There are other candidates to suggest why Neymar had tears for souvenirs at the end of this 3-0 aggregate quarterfinal defeat. Remember, until relatively recently at least, that Lionel Messi would break down in dressing room tears if Barcelona lost an important final. Perhaps not the first leg of a Spanish SuperCup but, say, for a Copa del Rey final defeat.
For Messi, whose competitive attitude compares to Neymar's the way that an aircraft carrier compares to a trawler, the pain of a big defeat cut him like a sharp knife and he cried in frustration and pain. So please don't think for a moment that I'm either mocking, or being mean to, Neymar. I'm not. I'm just deeply curious. Curious about what was going on and what it signifies.
I'd guess that a firm favourite candidate was the realization that, essentially, Wednesday's defeat could well be "season over" in relative terms for the guy who put the "N" in the "MSN." No more Champions League, although fellow Brazilians Dani Alves, Filipe Luis, Casemiro, Alex Sandro, Marcelo and Fabinho not only party on in the European Cup, but stand to win it. Something which, since they did so in 2015, neither Neymar nor his teammates have looked too likely to be Champions of Europe again.
Again, we all know how painful that sensation is of having your nose pressed against the window when inside, all your pals are dancing and drinking and telling tall tales: that's lonely and liable to promote the thought "How did this happen?" At which point, melancholia can kick in.
The "season over" thing is relative. Of course it is. This competition's gone now but what will be kicking in is the importance of the phrases Luis Enrique subsequently used when Neymar was in his car and heading for the hills.
The Barcelona coach, grinning from ear to ear as if defeat to Juve doesn't sting him like raw salt on an open wound, swore that "what I've always said, even as a player, is that the single best game to have next after a set-back is the derby in Madrid against an eternal rival." Well, he wasn't thinking about "Ney" because the Brazilian acted like a bit of a nitwit to get himself sent off at Malaga the other week and now he's suspended from facing Madrid on Sunday night. So, no panacea. No footballing medicine.
If Barcelona lose there, that's "season over" for the title chase, too. Make no mistake about that. There's nothing he can do to prevent that happening because unless he signs up as a ball-boy or the Bernabeu Stadium announcer, Neymar won't be present on Sunday night.
Did any of that make Neymar cry? Or, I wonder, was there some kind of realization that he's spent the last couple of years pretty sure that coasting along on his natural talent will be sufficient to get him to "No. 1" status in the world in due course when Ronaldo and Messi finally step aside?
Might the kid have been silently full of self recriminations? "Just a little more focus ... just a few fewer nights out ... just a bit less time dealing with lawyers and court cases and listening to old partners or old friends remonstrating him for his behaviour when moving from Santos to Barcelona."
And so, admittedly it could be all of those things and it might even, be an indication that he figures there might come a time soon when Barcelona won't even be this competitive, or a time when he's forced to seek inspiration elsewhere.
Who knows? I'm not trying to guide anyone to any false conclusions. What I will say, without claiming to know the inside of Neymar's head, is that his behavior all night was the perfect metaphor for where Barcelona are at right now.
Barcelona, as a team, are still jam-packed full of talent -- as is he. He, as are they, is willowy thin and extremely vulnerable to the smash-and-grab football that the referee often allowed Juventus to practice on Wednesday. Both of them could do with some muscle, some grimy attitude: a little bit more teflon toughness.
Neymar's a perfect metaphor for the current Barcelona, too, because he's from "outside the Barca house." He's bought, not developed. Once the king of the castle in Brazil and now requiring to set aside his pride, show humility and accept that there is at least one, if not two, great leaders who rule by popular acclaim (pick from Messi, Luis Suarez or Andres Iniesta).
Neymar's from Brazil; Barcelona seem determined not trust La Masia products any more. The general state of Neymar was a metaphor for unfulfilled potential: not just his own, but that of the team, the club and their players.
One of the reasons this guy has fitted like hand in glove since joining Barcelona is that things are gentler now. This squad has kept on winning and winning to the point when that drive had to diminish a little. But had Neymar been working under Pep Guardiola for this long, I'll wager that we'd have seen a more complete, more intelligent and more self-aware player.
The biggest metaphor for his club that Neymar represented at the end of that 0-0 draw was a lost, beaten and sad figure who deep down knows why he feels so bad, and knows exactly why this didn't "happen" against Juve, but who doesn't want to admit the truth either publicly or privately. Hence the tears: frustration, ugly self-knowledge, pain at being kicked up and down the pitch, again. Tears partly born of knowing "I should have done better. Much better."
Genuinely, it's a bitter thing to be left feeling as you traipse off the pitch, head down and eyes full of tears. The answer, for both the striker and his employers, is simple. Harder work, better work. Fewer distractions, more sacrifices, more intelligence.
Sound like a plan, Neymar? Barca? OK then, dry your eyes. Life goes on.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.