When Neymar limped off after injuring his right leg during Paris Saint-Germain’s 3-0 victory over Marseille on Sunday, it didn’t look good.
On Monday night, the club confirmed the first diagnoses — an ankle sprain and a hairline metatarsal fracture — and they have led to several possible scenarios, ranging from the world’s most expensive player being fit to face Real Madrid in the Champions League round-of-16 second leg next Tuesday to the Brazilian international forward missing the World Cup.
Here’s an attempt to make sense of what is a fluid situation.
Q: So who is saying what?
A: PSG confirmed the nature of Neymar’s injuries and their manager Unai Emery said on Tuesday morning that there is a small chance he’ll be ready for the Real Madrid game. The Brazilian football federation left the ball in PSG’s court by saying “we always uphold the decisions made by the clubs,” but media reports from the country suggested he’ll need surgery and that could mean a couple of months out.
Then, on Tuesday night, Neymar’s father, who also serves as his agent and manager, told ESPN that he expects his son to be out for “between six to eight weeks,” adding: “Yes, of course he is is out against Real Madrid. It is absurd if anybody thinks otherwise.”
Q: Have we heard from the man himself yet?
A: Not directly, though Neymar posted a photo of his injured leg on Instagram. Meanwhile, sources close to him and PSG told ESPN that he has rejected the idea of playing with the aid of painkillers, as the method increases the risk that the injury becomes more serious. Neymar wants to play against Real, if at all possible, but is not prepared to risk the rest of the season with PSG and the World Cup with Brazil. The source added that, if surgery is unavoidable, those closest to the 26-year-old are keen for him to get it as soon as possible, so his Russia 2018 chances are not jeopardised.
Q: It’s obviously all about that metatarsal, isn’t it?
A: Yeah, the ankle sprain will heal relatively quickly, but the damaged fifth metatarsal — the long bone behind his little toe — is the real concern. What we don’t know — because we haven’t been told — is the extent of that fracture or where that fracture is. In many cases, metatarsal fractures aren’t treated with surgery; you just rest, wear a protective boot for six to eight weeks and allow it to heal naturally
Q: So why would Neymar go under the knife?
A: His feet aren’t subject to the same stresses as a normal person. More importantly, surgery sets the bones in such a way that they are more likely to heal properly and reattach the way they should. So there’s an argument to be made that, long term, he’s better off going this route (again, depending on the nature of the fracture). But surgery means recovery time will be longer — you’d be looking at anywhere from eight to 12 weeks, maybe longer — and that’s why PSG are taking their time.
Q: Because they don’t want to lose Neymar for the rest of the season?
A: Exactly. Avoiding surgery might mean that he’s back for the Champions League final on May 26, or possibly even the semifinal in late April and early May.
Q: Whoa, there! They need to get there first and they’re 3-1 down to Real Madrid after the first leg…
A: Indeed. That’s why there’s a school of thought that maintains Neymar should wait until March 6, the day they play Madrid at the Parc des Princes. By that stage, he’ll have had nine days of absolute rest, and while he won’t be healed, maybe he’ll be able to tough it out and play. Guys have played with broken metatarsals before; it can be painful and there is a risk of aggravating the injury, but it can be done. The question is whether it’s worthwhile, not least because doing so would also delay his return to full fitness, whether he has surgery or attempts to heal naturally.
Q: Why would PSG risk this?
A: If they believe that even a less-than-100-percent Neymar still gives them a substantially better shot at beating Madrid, they might be tempted. For all they know, they could go through, then get lucky in the quarterfinal and semifinal draws with opponents who are eminently beatable without Neymar. He could then come back for the final and everything would be great. After all, this is PSG’s season, right here. If they get knocked out at this stage, there is little to look forward to, other than domestic cup competitions of the kind they win every year anyway. Plus the league which, given their 14-point lead, is effectively already in the bag.
Then there’s the fact that exiting in the round of 16 hits hard financially, not just in terms of prize money lost — there’s some $30 million difference between going out now and reaching the final — but also as far as gate receipts and commercial income is concerned. And that matters, because, following the signings of Kylian Mbappe and Neymar himself, PSG will struggle to meet UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Regulations.
Q: FFP again? What could happen to them?
A: We’re talking hypotheticals but, given that this would be their second offence in four years and that they’ve been warned about it — UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has talked tough on this front — it could be anything from a fine to transfer restrictions to, potentially, a ban from European competition.
Q: What do the Brazilian FA have to say about their star?
A: Well, obviously they want a fully fit Neymar for the World Cup and they could not care less about what happens to PSG between now and then. Given that, you would imagine they would want him to have surgery, take the time he needs to recover and be 100 percent for Russia. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the worst-case-scenario tales in this have emanated from Brazil and one of the national-team doctors has confirmed he is en route to Paris.
From Brazil’s point of view, the problem with him gritting things out and playing against Madrid is that he could aggravate the injury. Even if he doesn’t, it would delay his recovery, and that might bleed into the World Cup, which begins on June 14.
Q: What happens to PSG if he’s not playing? Do they have any hope?
A: They do. Especially relative to a half-fit Neymar, PSG have plenty of depth and options. They can call upon Julian Draxler, Angel Di Maria or maybe even Javier Pastore. While none of those guys is a Neymar-type player — or anywhere near as good, obviously — and Unai Emery would need to tweak the formation, it’s not as if they’re lacking for alternatives. But there’s little question that, between Neymar’s absence and the 3-1 lead from the first leg, Real Madrid would be firm favourites to advance.
Q: Sounds like a club vs. country dispute is brewing, with Neymar stuck in the middle…
A: Potentially, that’s exactly what it is. And that is a tale as old as time.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.