On Sunday, the footballing world held its breath as Neymar left Paris Saint-Germain’s Ligue 1 fixture against Lyon on a stretcher and in tears.
The victim of a fierce challenge from Thiago Mendes, the Brazil star crumpled to the grass clutching his ankle. As he hid his face from the cameras, it was readily evident the pain he was suffering. This was no mere act.
For the third time in four seasons, it seemed that Neymar had suffered a serious injury that could rule him out through the crucial spring period of the campaign.
The initial scans, however, have returned a sunnier outlook. PSG are hopeful that Neymar will be return within weeks rather than months, and will easily be fit in time to feature a gainst Barcelona as they renew their push for a maiden Champions League title in February.
If the polemic nature of Neymar’s on-field demeanour means he is a figure who will never be universally celebrated, for those who appreciate his freestyling nature, news of him avoiding long-lasting harm is cause for relief.
But the incident at Parc des Princes on Sunday should also serve as a warning: the manner in which Neymar is currently treated on the field leaves him vulnerable and exposed.
“F*ck… how much longer? We have spoken about this so much, we have underlined the excess of violence,” Neymar’s father complained on Instagram.
“Why not stop it at the beginning, with the first foul, why wait until the seventh, eighth, ninth foul?
“We are not taking the necessary measures throughout the whole game, where Neymar suffered the usual rotation of fouls, and always violent ones.
“This encourages these types of players and attitudes. If this sort of thing is allowed to continue, football will really lose a lot.
“FOR HOW MUCH LONGER WILL THE VICTIM BE THE ONE AT FAULT?”
It must be said, he has a point.
There is no player in the game treated with the brutality that Neymar is over the course of any given match – and the statistics back that up.
Of players to have suffered at least 25 fouls in Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues this season, only Borussia Monchengladbach forward Breel Embolo has fewer minutes between each offence suffered. Neymar, on average, is fouled once every 18.3 minutes.
But this is not a new trend, Neymar’s body has taken a battering over the years.
If, during his time in Ligue 1, he has never led the league in fouls suffered, this is largely because the violence of them has forced him to miss matches.
Indeed, when minutes-per-foul suffered is the context looked at, the PSG star leads the French top-flight in each of his four campaigns. In European terms, he has been in the top five in each of his three completed seasons in France, having been top in this matrix in 2017-18.
Smart teams, of course, are able to work their way around disciplinary sanctions, taking it in turns to have a hack at the world’s most expensive player.
The starkest example of this in recent times was when PSG overcame RB Leipzig in an ugly Champions League encounter in November.
Julian Nagelsmann’s side took turns to batter the Brazilian, who was the victim of seven fouls alone that evening.
Many of these were extremely physical – and that is not accounting for those adjudged to be fair. His team-mates, by contrast, combined for a total of 11 fouls suffered.
According to Opta’s figures, Neymar was the victim of fouls 25 per cent more than any other player in the group stages of Europe’s premier club competition who played at least minutes.
He won 24 fouls in five outings, the victim of an offence once every 16 minutes when he was on the field. This shows that it simply cannot be dismissed as a Ligue 1 problem.
Football should celebrate players who can readily bring flair and excitement to matches, and while a degree of physicality must remain, stars like Neymar must be protected.
At times, he is reduced to the role of crash-test dummy; forced to deal with marauding defenders who only have a limited desire to play the ball.
His body has often paid the price in the past, and it seems fortunate that it did not do so to a more severe degree on Sunday.
Neymar is living proof that footballers can still indeed be kicked out of the game.