“I think it will be my last World Cup,” said the Brazilian about the 2022 tournament. “I don’t know whether I will be able to, mentally, to endure more soccer.”
Part of the endurance for the Paris Saint-Germain forward comes from being the great hope wearing one of the heaviest shirts in world football, the yellow of the nation he loves playing for.
But elite professional sport has also become a real test of endurance for those taking part.
To squeeze more and more money out of it, there is a drive for more matches, more tournaments. As FIFA’s head of global development, Arsene Wenger is leading the drive for biennial World Cups with continental tournaments (European Championships etc) in the years in between. Presumably the Nations League, which has just had a very successful second final, will be squeezed in, too.
Wenger’s pay-off is for qualifying tournaments to be played in just one (October) or two (March) international windows but they cannot be anything other than jam-packed.
Meanwhile, others press ahead with schemes for expanded Club World Cups, Europa Conference Leagues, Super Leagues and the like to claim their increased share of the loot.
Wenger wants a guaranteed 25-day rest for players once major tournaments are over, but it is hard to see where it can come from without either taking them out of existing (and often lucrative) competitions or, as Leeds United coach Marcelo Bielsa wisely suggested recently, just playing less.
It is not unique to football. The England men’s cricket team have been cancelling and haggling over winter series because they are asking too much of players and coaches. When British teenager Emma Raducanu won tennis’s US Open, Annabel Croft and others were quick to tell her to pick and choose her tournaments as the likes of Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal do.
Neymar will only be 30 at the Qatar World Cup, no age to retire. His is not a body still growing like Raducanu’s or entitled to be starting to creak like the great veterans of the circuit. The strain is probably more mental than physical, but is certainly becoming too great.
World Cups are to be enjoyed, not endured.