Neymar's next chapter is off to a difficult start as Ronaldo and Messi continue to lead the way

Wed, Oct 18, 2023
Soccer News (AP)

Neymar's next chapter is off to a difficult start as Ronaldo and Messi continue to lead the way

MANCHESTER, England (AP) - In what has become an all-too familiar sight, Neymar left the soccer field in tears after yet another injury.

Quite a contrast to Lionel Messi's smiles at Inter Miami and Cristiano Ronaldo's reenergized success with Portugal.

Neymar hurt his knee in the first half of Brazil's 2-0 World Cup qualifying loss at Uruguay on Tuesday. Now he, Brazil and Saudi club Al Hilal face an anxious wait to learn the extent of the damage.

At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, a knee to the back from Colombia defender Juan Zuniga in the quarterfinals ruled Neymar out of the tournament with a fractured vertebra. Then last year in Qatar, there were more tears when Neymar feared an ankle injury would cut his tournament short. Instead, it was a loss to Croatia in the quarterfinals that prematurely ended his bid to win soccer's biggest trophy.

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Ronaldo and Messi turned the Ballon d'Or award for the world's best player into a personal duel at the height of their powers. But the pair recently left elite European soccer behind, with the 31-year-old Neymar also heading to the Saudi league after years of being in the shadow of two of the sport's greatest ever players.

Along with Messi and Luis Suarez, Neymar may have been part of a Barcelona forward line that won the Champions League in 2015, but he was never the main man.

Even his record 222 million euro ($270 million) move to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 did not provide the platform for him to step out in front of Ronaldo and Messi as he failed to lead the French club to a Champions League title. Instead, it was PSG teammate Kylian Mbappe who emerged as the player most likely to establish himself as soccer's next icon.

In August came a transfer to Saudi Arabia as part of the oil-rich kingdom's bid to lure the sport's biggest names to its league and establish itself as a major force in soccer.

Ronaldo had led the way with his move to Al-Nassr in December. He was followed by Champions League winners like Karim Benzema, Sadio Mane and N'Golo Kante. But aside from Ronaldo, Neymar was arguably the biggest coup for Saudi Arabia after it had missed out on moves for Messi and Mbappe.

Meanwhile, over in the United States, Messi opted to make the switch to MLS with Inter Miami.

The Argentine great, who fulfilled his career ambition of winning the World Cup last year, appears to be loving life in Florida and quickly led Inter Miami to victory in the Leagues Cup. The goals are flowing as he draws superstar fans such as LeBron James and Selena Gomez to watch him in person.

In Saudi Arabia, Ronaldo has put behind him the difficulties he endured at Manchester United last year, which led to his contract being terminated in November. He went on to have a disappointing World Cup, dropped to the bench by Portugal and then out in the quarterfinals.

It was not clear what direction his career would go when he joined Al-Nassr in one of the most surprising transfers in the sport's history, but it was certainly going to make him even richer after signing a deal reportedly worth up to $200 million a year.

While his best years are clearly behind him, Ronaldo is still producing the goods on the field - leading Portugal to next year's European Championship with nine goals in qualifying and keeping Al-Nassr in contention near the top of the Saudi league.

Neymar's team, Al Hilal, leads the way, but he has yet to make a major contribution on the field since his move, worth a reported 90 million euros ($98 million) - a record for the league.

Injury has limited him to only three appearances in the league and two in the Asian Champions League, where he has scored one goal.

It is hardly the impact he or Al Hilal would have wanted after such a high-profile move. And even if he did break Pele's Brazil scoring record last month, it still feels like he is in the shadow of Ronaldo and Messi.

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James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

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