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Sports struggle to find meaning without fans

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.

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