Today is Neymar's birthday, and he's injured.
You're tempted to say "plus ca change" -- after all, he was sidelined this time last year too. And the year before that, although the injury came later this month. But it still robbed Paris Saint-Germain of their most influential player (and the most expensive player in the history of the sport) at the business end of the season, in the Champions League. It made all the difference, with PSG crashing out amidst controversy last season against Manchester United and, two years ago, against Real Madrid (on that occasion, he missed the return leg and PSG missed him).
Except it's a little different now. This injury is to his ribs and he's expected back very soon. If there is a curse, it hasn't set in yet.
In fact, view Neymar through something other than the usual lens provided by tattoos and top hats, hype and hysteria, bling and Barca, rainbow flicks and sister's birthdays and you just might find that he's arguably having the best season of his career.
It's not something you can measure in goals -- he has 15 in 18 outings, roughly in line with his output in his two previous seasons at PSG -- and it's not as if PSG are necessarily a far better side this year thanks to him: in Ligue 1 they're marginally behind the pace set in the past two campaigns and while they topped a Champions League group that included Real Madrid (just like they won their group in recent years), he was suspended for the first two match days and injured for a further two.
In fact, an even more granular look at his numbers show that they're pretty much in line with most of his career, dating back to his Camp Nou days. His expected goals are up a little but otherwise, he's taking roughly the same number of shots (four per game) successfully dribbling the same number of opponents (around 5.5 a match), passing at the usual rate (around 79%) and, on the downside, losing the ball more than most players around (nearly eight turnovers per 90 minutes).
Maybe it's maturity. Maybe it's the realisation that those two guys, despite being well into their 30s, aren't going away any time soon, coupled with the fact that every day at training, he sees a guy named Kylian Mbappe with the skills to potentially leapfrog him once those two exit stage left. (Assuming they ever do: you wonder these days.)
Or maybe it's the fact that this season not just as a professional, but as a would-be messiah, he's now a bit over the role. At Santos, he was following in the footsteps of Pele. At Barca, he was the heir apparent to Messi. At PSG, he was the guy who was going to turn them into a global super club. And throughout, there was the parallel international thread that saw him tasked with delivering Brazil's World Cup on home soil and then getting a follow-up shot in Russia -- and that's before you get into his Copa America experiences.
It's not that Neymar can't deal with the pressure or attention of having nations -- both real and virtual, as in the fans of PSG Nation -- project their hopes and dreams on to his slight frame. Heck, he's not just lived with pressure from the age of 17, he's actively sought the limelight and embraced it, or, to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, he ate it up and spit it out.
It's just that from where Neymar is sitting in his career, maybe he can see the end of the road and just how quickly tomorrow closes in on you. Obsession can be a very useful driver (just ask Ronaldo), but if you don't have the right personality for it, it can take you to some dark places. Especially when it's the obsession of others. And so there's a relative moderation to the way he carries himself now, "relative" being the operative word.
This past weekend offered a neat snapshot of this. Neymar tore it up in PSG's 5-0 win over Montpellier, failing to score but dishing out a gem of an assist and otherwise delighting the Parc des Princes. He was upbraided by referee Jerome Brisard and later clashed with him in the tunnel (reportedly Brisard criticised him for showboating and for not addressing him in French) but equally, there was no fallout. It was Neymar being Neymar, and while the showboating doesn't sit well with some, he pushes it to the limit with which he's comfortable and not what others expect.
He even managed to have fun with it. Montpellier striker Andy Delort had called it "disrespectful" before the match and Neymar's postgame response was (obviously) via Instagram, posing with teammate Leandro Paredes and a signed Delort shirt with the message: "A hug to our friend."
He also picked up an injured rib in that game, perhaps a function of being fouled no fewer than nine times. Did it stop him from attending the white-themed birthday party he threw himself and where he was photographed in a top hat and with a lackey holding an umbrella over his head?
Did it heck. He still showed up and partied, but he made a point of making sure he was tucked in bed at a reasonable hour. His coach, Thomas Tuchel, said it wasn't "the best way to prepare for a match" but hey, you take the good with the bad. Whatever floats his boat (within reason). And a happy Neymar is a productive Neymar.
Having been the G.O.A.T. candidate-in-waiting for the past decade, Neymar is OK for others to handle the sceptre. Just as long as he can play, entertain and be the best possible version of himself. And he gets to decide what that looks like, not the tens of millions who've been determined to thrust greatness upon him from the time he made his debut at Santos all those years ago.