Why Neymar isn’t playing in Inter Miami vs Al Hilal

During Neymar’s first season at Barcelona in 2013, as the 21-year-old struggled to adapt to a new league, country and language, he fell into the warm embrace of Lionel Messi.

“The best person in the world came to me,” Neymar remembered years later, “held my hand and spoke to me.” Neymar was so taken aback by Messi’s cajoling tone – imploring the Brazilian to “be the same boy you were at Santos” and “don’t be scared of me or anyone else in the team” – that he burst into tears. “Suddenly I became calm. At last. It was the start of a warm friendship.”

The pair were reunited at Paris Saint-Germain in 2021 and after some fleeting flashes of brilliance, both left the French capital last summer. While Messi turned down the riches offered to him by the Saudi Pro League (he already has a lucrative sponsorship agreement with the country’s tourism board) to join Inter Miami, Neymar couldn’t pull away from the golden handshake.

Messi’s Miami travel to the home of Al Hilal, the Saudi giants that coughed up a staggering £86m for Neymar in August, as part of their pre-season tour on Monday, but there will be no on-pitch reunion for the firm friends.

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Neymar injured himself on international duty / Guillermo Legaria/GettyImages

Neymar arrived at Al Hilal off the pace physically. The 31-year-old sat out the final four months of the 2022/23 season with PSG after suffering yet another ankle injury which required surgery.

Al Hilal head coach Jorge Jesus questioned how the Brazilian FA could call Neymar up for the September internationals when he had not been fit enough to make his debut in Saudi. Yet, Neymar duly lined up for his country and broke Pele’s long-standing national men’s scoring record.

The Brazilian trickster only mustered five appearances for Al Hilal before he was back on international duty in October. Rather than records, Neymar broke his knee.

In the first half of a 2-0 defeat to Uruguay, Brazil’s talisman tore the ACL and meniscus in his left knee. After so many fitness setbacks, Neymar described this latest blow as the “worst” moment of his career.

Brazil’s national team doctor Rodrigo Lasmar warned in December that Neymar had a long road back to the pitch. “It’s too early,” the medical professional said, “there’s no point skipping steps to recover sooner and taking unnecessary risks.

“Our expectation is that he will be ready to return at the start of the 2024 season in Europe, which is August.”

The damning diagnosis effectively ruled Neymar out of Brazil’s squad for the 2024 Copa America which will take place between June and July. Unless Messi suffers a fitness blow of his own, Argentina’s skipper is perfectly poised to defend his country’s continental crown at a tournament held in the US, his home since last summer.

Messi ended his wait for silverware with the national team at the 2021 Copa America, leading Argentina to a 1-0 victory in the final against a Brazil side with Neymar at its core. The defeated forward was in tears at the final whistle but soon wrapped Messi in a warm embrace. “I hate to lose! But enjoy your title,” Neymar wrote on social media. “Football was waiting for you for that moment! Congratulations brother.” Unfortunately, there will be no hugs on the pitch after Monday’s friendly.


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