Brazilians and Catalans alike had their hearts in their mouths as Neymar turned his ankle in the Copa del Rey victory over Getafe on Thursday night. Thoughts turned to the Champions League and the World Cup and all the glory that had been mapped out for him in 2014.
Neymar had barely taken his sock off and hobbled away before his coach Tata Martino and Lionel Messi were playing down the extent of the injury and hastening Neymar’s return to the starting line-up in the press. “We hope it is nothing serious and that he is not out for a long time as we need him,” Messi said. “He is very important for us and we want him back soon.” Messi, in particular, given his recent repetitive injury problems should know better than to urge anyone to return before they are truly ready.
Initial estimations put Neymar’s return at three to four weeks – a timeframe that concludes just before the vital Champions League match against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium. It is inevitable that Barcelona’s medical team will pencil in that clash for Neymar’s return – if not sooner. He is that important to Barca, already, that it would be unthinkable he does not feature.
But if Barcelona care about Neymar’s welfare and their substantial investment in him, they will let him recover – properly – in his own time. This injury is not indicative of a pattern – like Messi’s thigh and hamstring problems – nor can it be allowed to develop into one. However, he is only 21 and is still growing. Barcelona’s haste in having Messi back on the field was proven to be disastrous as the Argentina captain simply could not return to fitness. Only after a decent winter break has Messi been able to run freely again.
In fairness, Neymar has a relatively clean injury record in his career to this point but concerns were raised when he arrived at Barcelona due to his puny frame and his weight of barely 64kg. Added to that was the discovery that he was anaemic. He does not possess an athletic frame like a Zlatan Ibrahimovic or a Cristiano Ronaldo and he likely never will.
At Santos, Neymar was indulged. He played only 17 times in the entire 2012 Brasileirao campaign in between matches for the national team. He started playing for Barcelona immediately after the Confederations Cup – without a good rest in the summer. He has already played 16 Liga matches for Barcelona. Neymar’s body is surely not yet accustomed to such intensity and he will need to be carefully nurtured back to full fitness – regardless of commercial interests in him.
The incident on Thursday served as a reminder just how fragile Neymar’s participation in the upcoming World Cup is. He has been promoted as the face of the tournament in his home country of Brazil. It is inconceivable that the World Cup would be staged without his presence. He is the star attraction.
Neymar’s predecessor at Barcelona and in the national team, Ronaldo, played plenty of times when he was not fit and should never have been selected for the World Cup final in 1998. That night in Paris was shameful to all involved in Ronaldo’s selection. It showed what happens when players are pressured into playing when their coaches and minders should know better.
The CBF, Barcelona and indeed Nike know the risks if they prompt Neymar to return before he is naturally fit. They must not let history repeat itself.