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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Neymar will play arguably the most important soccer match of his life today — in an empty stadium in Lisbon, Portugal.

The state of play: Millions will watch on TV as the 28-year-old megastar tries to send PSG past RB Leipzig and into the club's first Champions League final, rewriting his narrative and adding to his legacy in the process.

  • But no fans will be in attendance — a surreal environment for the kind of game that Neymar, and all athletes, dream about as children.

Why it matters: Whether it's the Champions League semifinals, the NBA/NHL Finals, the World Series or the Super Bowl, career-defining moments are going to look a lot different for the foreseeable future.

  • The iconic performances that inspire documentaries will still be broadcast in real-time and preserved forever on video and in photos.
  • But the absence of fans changes how they're ultimately remembered.

The backdrop: When Neymar left Barcelona in 2017 and signed a record-breaking deal with PSG, the plan was to step out of Lionel Messi's shadow, win a Ballon d'Or, and be recognized as the best player in the world.

  • That hasn't happened. Since arriving in Paris, not only has Neymar not won a Ballon d'Or, he's faded from contention.
  • "[T]here is a sense that, when we look back on Neymar's career, we will see the flash, the glamour, the extravagance, and little or nothing more: all style, no substance; a generational talent not quite fulfilled," NYT's Rory Smith wrote back in February.
  • A Champions League title would help change the narrative and alter the trajectory of the Brazilian's still-young career.

The bottom line: Greatness in sports is determined largely by context. The roar of the crowd, the energy in the building — it sets the stage for mere humans to become immortal.

  • Without fans in the stands, some of that magic is lost. And, whether you're an athlete competing or a fan watching from home, meaning is harder to find.

Go deeper

Kendall Baker, author of Sports
Nov 3, 2020 - Sports

The NBA is pushing to start its season in December

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

After initially indicating that the 2020-21 season would likely start in January or February, NBA officials are now pushing for a 72-game season starting Dec. 22.

The state of play: There are obvious financial benefits to an earlier start, including the preservation of the league's marquee Christmas games and not having to compete with football again, let alone the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

19 mins ago - World

Putin foe Navalny to be detained for 30 days after returning to Moscow

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Photo: Oleg Nikishin/Epsilon/Getty Images

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny has been ordered to remain in pre-trial detention for 30 days, following his arrest upon returning to Russia on Sunday for the first time since a failed assassination attempt last year.

Why it matters: The detention of Navalny, an anti-corruption activist and the most prominent domestic critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has already set off a chorus of condemnations from leaders in Europe and the U.S.

Biden picks Warren allies to lead SEC, CFPB

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden has selected FTC commissioner Rohit Chopra to be the next director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and Obama-era Wall Street regulator Gary Gensler to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Why it matters: Both picks are progressive allies of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and viewed as likely to take aggressive steps to regulate big business.