On the day the world’s costliest footballer, Neymar, was learning the full gravity of the injury that had him being stretchered from the pitch wearing the jersey of Brazil, a few thousand spectators in northern France were enjoying a privileged moment.
They were in Calais to watch a fund-raising friendly. Eden Hazard was playing for a team that combined veterans whose careers peaked at the end of the last century and a few random celebrities with a looser connection to football.
There was one magical, video-clip moment that enriched the low-key fixture: A Hazard backheel, steering the ball to a teammate ambling in from the left flank. The pass, a piece of no-look impudence, invited the colleague to score. He did, which meant the name 'Mbappe' appeared on the scoresheet.
That’s Wilfried Mbappe, father of Kylian. He’s middle-aged and was part of the occasion because of his surname. He thanked Hazard with a broad smile. There was general backslapping from the retired ex-France footballers taking part. Hazard looked a little out of place. He’s only 32. But as of last week, he is also a retired ex-footballer.
Neymar will turn 32 in February, which given the diagnosis of the injury he sustained in Brazil’s 2-0 defeat to Uruguay in Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier, a cruciate ligament rupture with complications, will be a birthday he reaches well before he is fit enough to play football again.
The impact for Al Hilal – who signed Neymar in the summer from Paris Saint-Germain, the club where in 2017 he was bought for a record-breaking €222m from Barcelona – is considerable; the implications for Brazil, Neymar being their all-time greatest goalscorer, are weighty.
For the player himself, a superstar who has never disguised his ambition to win a Ballon d’Or, claim a World Cup and be regarded as the third member of a generation-defining trio alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the surgery and long lay-off must be counted out against the likely timeframe of his remaining career.
Were he as physically robust as Ronaldo, who is thriving in his 39th year, the outlook would be cheerier. But all the evidence suggests a more fragile body than the evergreen Portuguese, and that Neymar’s limbs and joints are more vulnerable when making quick twists and turns on the ball than 36-year-old Messi’s are. Neymar’s last six years have been interrupted by 16 injuries that required significant periods of absence: That’s 640 days off work since 2017.
By no means all of these setbacks were the result of impact injuries, the kind that can be directly traced to tackles, collisions, or bad fouls. But Neymar would be among the first to say that his skill in one-on-one duels and his dribbling have been a factor in the cumulative wear and tear on him because referees have failed to protect him from brutal challenges.
It was a complaint he made again and again of France’s Ligue 1. He believed PSG’s domestic opponents tended to adopt, and get away with, rougher behaviour than in other comparable leagues.
Hazard, or at least some of the managers he worked for, used to say the same of his treatment from man-markers during his time with Chelsea in the English Premier League. There, he endured some significant spells recovering from injury, although fewer than Neymar at PSG.
But as with Neymar, when Hazard was missing from the Premier League stage, one he lit up for seven years from 2012, the sport lost a great entertainer. There have been times, over the last decade, when Neymar and Hazard were counted among the most watchable individual players in the world, not far behind Ronaldo and Messi even in that pair’s peak years.
A year after Ronaldo left Real Madrid, the Spanish giants paid over €120m to Chelsea for Hazard, then 28. Among the motivating factors for Hazard was to experience a league where the physical rigours might not be so great as the breathless, blood-and-thunder Premier League.
The move to Madrid worked out terribly. Injuries, one of them a broken foot bone, made Hazard far more absent than present. After four years, and just 41 starts in that time, club and player cut their ties. Three months later, Hazard announced his retirement as a professional player. He had, he said, “listened to his body.”
Neymar heard his body, and listened to doctors on Wednesday, and then declared this, his latest injury “the worst” he has known. His new adventure, in a Saudi Pro League which he was entitled to hope was less arduous in some of its physical demands than France, is on hold. He may not recover in time for Brazil’s Copa America campaign in June.
The worst forecast is that, like Hazard, Neymar concludes that, at only 32 years old, there is no upward path ahead for his career.