Neymar's road back from the abyss begins with Brazil
There is only ever one winner in the battle between an athlete and the march of time; according to those in his camp, this is a lesson Neymar has now grasped.
The Brazilian is closer to 28 than 27. He can play for another decade, but there are no more than five seasons left at or around his physical peak. If he is to make his fullest mark on the history of the game, time is running out.
But which club can offer him the platform? The simplest route from Paris Saint-Germain back to Barcelona always seemed to involve his compatriot Philippe Coutinho going in the other direction, plus cash and other players. From the moment Coutinho was loaned to Bayern Munich, it seemed clear that Neymar would be stuck in Paris for a few more months.
There are worse fates, and Neymar is surely prepared to roll up his sleeves and play for PSG. Thomas Tuchel would almost certainly welcome him back, as would almost everyone in the dressing room. Indeed, Neymar often appears highly popular among his teammates. So, then, it is up to the club. There could be resistance from the owners, but if they want to sell him, it is in their best interest to keep him active. There will certainly be resistance from the fans.
Similarly, there was some resistance from Brazil supporters when Neymar was included in the squad for this month's friendlies. Internet polls showed a majority against. But there would seem to be no doubts at all from coach Tite; Neymar has a place in his heart and a place in his team.
The last time Neymar was in action was for Brazil. He was injured on June 5 in a Copa America warm-up match against Qatar, and now he stands by to represent his country once more on Friday against Colombia in Miami and on Tuesday against Peru in Los Angeles.
The Peru match is a rerun of the recent Copa America final, won 3-1 by Brazil. The Colombia clash is more interesting, precisely because this was a meeting that did not take place in the Copa America.
Two teams appeared to have the resources to give Brazil a scare on home ground; both went out on penalties in the quarterfinals. One was Uruguay, who continue to make smooth progress in the 14th year of the reign of coach Oscar Washington Tabarez. The other was Colombia, starting a fascinating new era under African-born Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz.
With a dazzling CV, including spells in charge of Real Madrid and Portugal and assistant duties at Manchester United, Queiroz is working for the first time in South America. He is likely to take the chance to meet Brazil very seriously, as an important laboratory for reaching conclusions.
His team did not concede a goal in the four Copa games they played, but they scored only four -- and half of them came in the opening match against a ragged Argentina. And so the way that he builds his attacking play will be the key question in this next phase of his reign.
Neither Radamel Falcao nor James Rodriguez were fit enough for inclusion in this squad, and Queiroz is unlikely to lament their absences. On the evidence of the Copa, Falcao might well be coming to the end of his international career. Colombia looked far better when the hulking Duvan Zapata led the line. With James not present, Queiroz might have more freedom to wean Colombia off their dependence on an old-school No. 10. It will be interesting to see if he can find the creativity to trouble a Brazil defence that conceded a single goal -- and that a harshly awarded penalty -- during their six-game Copa campaign.
As they start building toward the 2022 World Cup, there could also be a tweak in the Brazil attack involving that man Neymar.
The waters are temporarily muddied by the absence of Everton, the hero of the Copa America. The insane calendar of the domestic Brazilian game means that he is involved with Gremio in the semifinals of the local cup, and so he has not been selected. But he enjoyed a splendid Copa, forcing his way into the starting lineup and finishing as joint top scorer as a left-winger seeking to cut in onto his stronger right foot -- the very thing that Neymar seeks to do.
Tite is very keen to retain Everton and move Neymar into a more central role, allowing him to float around behind, and sometimes in front of, the central striker. This is the way he has often played under Thomas Tuchel, and it's a position filled for Brazil by Coutinho, who was not entirely convincing in the Copa.
Tite will have to quickly gauge the early season fitness of his players. After a long layoff, is Neymar sharp enough to start and generate ideas from the centre? Or might this be an idea better left until he is back in club action? Either way, for both Tite and Queiroz, the road to Qatar opens on Friday in Miami.