The Unhappy King? The curious case of Neymar at Paris Saint-Germain
It’s somewhat ridiculous that, seven months on from the biggest transfer of all time, the future of Neymar is a hot topic.
In the summer, Paris Saint-Germain sent shockwaves through Europe when they signed the Brazilian in an astonishing, record-shattering £198m deal.
Barcelona were left reeling when Neymar informed the club’s hierarchy of his desire to leave.
And there it was: Barcelona’s superstar, the man expected to maintain Lionel Messi’s legacy at the Camp Nou for many years to come had packed his bags and left for Paris. Neymar’s transfer was a watershed moment. It was an unprecedented flexing of PSG's financial muscles and an emphatic statement from the Ligue 1 outfit, one that confirmed them as a force to be reckoned with.
Bankrolled by their inconceivably deep-pocketed Qatari owners, PSG have flickered on the radar of Europe’s best over the last few years. Before a surprise dethronement by Monaco last season, PSG won four Ligue 1 titles on the trot to confirm their conquest of French football.
They even flirted with a breakthrough in the Champions League last year when they beat Barcelona 4-0 in the last-16 first leg, only to implode in spectacular proportions at the Camp Nou in the return tie.
Neymar was very much playing for the Barca badge on that wild, memorable Catalonian night, but perhaps the exciting potential of the PSG squad turned his head.
And so, when they came calling in the summer, armed with an unprecedented financial package, Neymar felt it was time to jump ship.
Make no mistake, the Brazilian forward was joining an exceptional team, dripping with world-class talent already in the form of Edinson Cavani, Marco Verratti and Angel Di Maria. Neymar’s move was driven largely by individualistic goals though. At Barcelona, he had never managed to step out of Messi’s shadow. Messi is more than a footballer to the people of Barcelona. He is deified, worshipped and utterly adored. With that, Neymar must have accepted that he would always be second-favourite at Barca.
There is an enduring image from the night they battered PSG. It shows Messi standing on the advertising hoardings that surround the Camp Nou pitch, right arm raised towards the blackened sky above. Below him, dozens of outstretched hands try to grasp him. They feel overwhelmed to be within touching distance of the arguably the greatest footballer to have played the game.
Messi, in an elevated position, is portrayed as a god. It’s not hyperbole. That’s just the level of adoration directed at him in Barcelona, that inescapable sense of singular appreciation and love that eclipses that he feels from Argentina fans, with whom he’s always had a complicated relationship.
Neymar sensed it as well as anyone. To become the world’s best player and win the Ballon d’Or, and follow in the footsteps of his illustrious compatriots Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Rivaldo, Neymar felt his next chapter lay elsewhere.
For fans of the French club, it was remarkably exciting. Securing Neymar’s services was the biggest coup in the club’s history and, coupled with the equally exciting capture of Kylian Mbappe from Monaco, it felt like an epoch making step from PSG.
In Neymar, Mbappe and Cavani the club had assembled arguably the deadliest attacking line-up in the modern game, a devastating combination of flair, finesse and superstar status. Spearheaded by that trio, PSG were tipped to not only dominate Ligue 1 but have a say in business end of the Champions League.
They’ve delivered so far – and how. Unai Emery’s side are, at the time of writing, 11 points clear at the top of Ligue 1 and have been an unstoppable force in the Champions League, mercilessly steamrolling their way through as group containing Bayern Munich, Celtic and Anderlecht, scoring a 25 goals in the process.
Neymar has been masterful in the Champions League, ending the group stage with six goals to his name.
If he is to win the Ballon d’Or, you feel that Neymar will need to produce his best form in the Champions League. With all due respect to Ligue 1, merely being the top player in French football feels insufficient in the pursuit of edging out the other frontrunners.
Recent history certainly suggests so. Cristiano Ronaldo won the 2017 award after starring for Real Madrid during their Champions League triumph. Neymar finished third. It’s reasonable to deduce that he feels as though his shot at the Ballon d’Or relies heavily on his exploits in the Champions League as well as this summer’s World Cup in Russia.
Yet, while Neymar has been outstanding on the pitch for PSG, something is amiss. His stats are exceptional, with 28 goals in 27 games. His average WhoScored rating for the Champions League is 9.24 (the next highest is Tottenham’s Harry Kane with 8.54), having notched four Man of the Match awards already. He has produced moments of magic and delighted the fans, while leaving commentators, pundits and journalists alike drooling with performances that, on the surface, make it seem like all is well in the French capital.
However, the honeymoon period has already come and gone. A series of incidents have at times threatened to overshadow Neymar’s brilliance at PSG and contributed to a general feeling of unease between the player and the club – and the fans.
It started with a dispute over a penalty. Neymar and Cavani argued over who should take one against Lyon. What seemed like a fairly innocuous event in the grand scheme generated friction between Neymar and the striker. Trying to pull rank on PSG's designated penalty taker was an unpopular move from Neymar and, soon after, reports emerged of a dressing room clash between the pair.
With the spotlight still firmly on that fractured relationship, newspapers in France reported a training ground disagreement between Neymar and PSG manager Unai Emery. The reports pinpointed Neymar's apparent lack of enthusiasm for the coach's video analysis sessions as the reason behind their falling out.
With murmurs of discontent, several think pieces postulated that Neymar had already grown disgruntled with life at PSG and regretted leaving Barcelona. But while the media focus on the 26-year-old has been intense, Neymar is well-accustomed to the attention. He was a teenage sensation in Brazil and, at 14, was being tipped as the nation's next footballing sensation. Football is religion in Brazil, so it was a big deal.
Becoming the most-expensive player in history has doubtless brightened the glare and, while Neymar has done most of his talking with his feet, he seems to have lost fans along the way. PSG's 8-0 annihilation of Dijon in January captured his complicated relationship with the club's supporters. He scored four times and achieved a perfect ten in L'Equipe's player ratings - only the second player ever to do so - but another incident involving Cavani blemished an otherwise perfect evening inside the Parc des Princes.
Already 7-0 up and with three goals to his name, Neymar took a late penalty to complete the rout after Cavani had won the spot-kick. The Uruguayan, sitting on 156 goals for PSG, needed one more to surpass Zlatan Ibrahimovic as the club's all-time leading scorer. Failing to recognise that it would have been a significant moment for his teammate and a perfect way to bury the hatchet from their previous altercation led to Neymar being booed by sections of his own supporters.
While there was no visible spat in the Dijon game, the reaction to Neymar taking the penalty with Cavani on the cusp of history reinforced the perception of the Brazilian as egotistical and a figure who has triggered a divide in the dressing room.
And, in spite of his scoring exploits, Neymar's behaviour hasn't helped. During a recent game against Rennes, he was booked for kicking the ball away after a foul on Hamari Traore. With the full-back sitting on the turf, Neymar offered his hand to him to help him up before taking it away, jogging away and offering a cheeky grin in the player's direction.
Following the game, Neymar said it was intended as a joke and, while that may well be true, it did not lend itself to great sportsmanship. For a player who has courted controversy for clashing with his teammates and manager, it was still a foolish thing to do.
There have also been a number of suspicious absences from games. In November, the forward missed PSG's 5-0 win away to Angers after a 'small blow to his muscle,' while earlier in September he missed the trip to Montpellier with a foot injury. This week, he was also left out of the squad to face Sochaux in the cup. With a Champions League showdown against Real Madrid next week, it's understandable that the club would want to rest its superstar, but Neymar's absence from the 'smaller games' has added plausibility to the argument that he is more interested in saving himself for the bigger occasions.
Speaking of Madrid, the constant rumours linking him with a sensational move to the Spanish heavyweights have only exacerbated the growing sense of uncertainty over Neymar's future. While we will have to wait until the summer to see if that blockbuster move goes through, the Brazilian will be the centre of attention when PSG face Madrid in the Bernabeu next Wednesday.
That match will fall on Valentine's night. After a turbulent few months which has dented Neymar's popularity among fans and teammates, crushing the European champions, led by Cristiano Ronaldo, represents the perfect opportunity for redemption, a time to answer critics and silence the speculation. Until the Madrid rumours inevitably resurface in the summer, at least.