The Neymar debacle

Anyone who, in terms of memory, has anything exceeding the capacities of a goldfish knew this might happen. Two years after Paris St-Germain paid the improbable sum of 222 MILLION EUROS to snatch Neymar from Barcelona, ESPN FC has reported that the two parties have mutually agreed to part ways. No one is sure how exactly this is to happen, but the fact that it will happen was rather predictable.

Like many, I was somewhere in the neighbourhood of shocked when I initially heard that the Brazilian would swap the prestige of Barcelona for the riches of PSG, but it ended up happening anyway. Several hypotheses for the move were emitted at the time: Neymar wanted the ridiculous money PSG could offer; his father, who doubles as his agent, stood to make a huge commission from the move; Neymar wanted to step out of Lionel Messi’s shadow and lead his own team. Whatever the reason(s) for him wanting the move to Paris, the consensus is that his tenure as the French capital team’s marquee star will have been a failure.

Artwork by Bleacher Report

It’s not entirely fair to say this, but it’s easy to understand why many would. Neymar was acquired by PSG barely a month or so after he led Barcelona famous/infamous “remontada” against PSG in the Champions’ League (PSG won the first game 4-0 only to lose the return leg 6-1). He was the superstar who would bring not just skill, which PSG already had in spades, but a clutch gene. He would also be the super-duper star who would contribute to the team’s Hollywood status.

The showbiz dimension of the move was always going to take care of itself, but it has not generated the boost on the field that was expected, by which we mean PSG has crashed out of the Champions’ League in the two seasons he has been with the team. It doesn’t help that, last season, they fell to a Manchester United, again by way of opponent comeback. In 2017-2018, unpopular coach Unai Emery took the blame, as exemplified by the French pundit Pierre Ménès saying of Emery, “this dude reeks of fear, and he’s passing it on to the players.” So the team fired him and brought on Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel, hoping he would provide the required spark. At first, it looked as though this was happening. The players, according to Ménès, looked happier, and this boded well for what was to come. But then, PSG bumped into a Manchester United team that was still in the honeymoon phase with interim coach Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, and allowed them to pull the rug out from under them, with Neymar abroad nursing an injury, for a second year in a row, as his team suffered UCL elimination.

Conspiracy theorists were already having a field day with Neymar at that point. How was his relationship with the team? Could it be possible that PSG was actually better without him (a preposterous notion)? Wasn’t it revealing that he was apparently so standoffish with regards to his teammates? We will, of course, never get an answer to these questions, but a mere look at recent Ligue 1 history could have served as a warning for PSG on the Neymar front.

Unhappy foreign stars: a recurring Ligue 1 theme?

Remember Falcao? In 2013, coming off two tremendous seasons with Atletico Madrid, the Columbian striker was considered the world’s best centre forward, and he was reported to want a move to Atleti’s crosstown rival Real Madrid. There was, however, one problem: his contract with the rojiblancos featured a clause that prevented him from jumping ship to Real. The solution was both tremendously risky and very curious. Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev had just bought Ligue 1 club AS Monaco and brought big spending money to the club from La Principeauté. Suffering from what The Ringer’s Bill Simmons calls “first-year owner syndrome” and wanting to make a splash, Rybolovlev and his footballing right-hand man Vadim Vasilyev did what anyone without any real contacts in the footballing world would do: they contacted a super agent, in this case Jorge Mendes, and asked which of his clients he’d recommend they sign. Mendes gave them three names, the most significant one (at the time) being Falcao, the established star. One supposes Monaco and Falcao had dual motives for this move: the player would try, after a year, to strong-arm ASM into agreeing to sell him to Madrid for a profit, and the club would have a year to convince him to stay.

If you believe in karma, the way events unfolded was the story for you, as what followed was the only lose-lose scenario for player and club. Falcao suffered a season-ending injury in an exhibition game against a non-professional team (what possessed Claudio Ranieri to play him in that game is completely beyond me), while fellow new arrival James Rodriguez blossomed into the superstar player who would be sold to Madrid. Meanwhile, Monaco remain stuck with Falcao, who has looked a shell of himself since that injury.

Also, the sale of Rodriguez was made necessary not just by the player’s desire to leave, but by looming Financial Fair Play sanctions. It’s what makes Rybolovlev’s decision to buy this specific club so puzzling, unless he just happened to want to own his tax haven’s local club. Anyone could have told him from a mile away that spending his way into league and Champions’ League titles like other superclubs do is not viable for ASM because they do not have the means to generate the kind of revenue that needs to accompany such massive transfer and wage bills.

At first glance, PSG seems equipped to avoid the pitfalls Monaco has fallen into. Until Neymar, they had mostly bought smart, no worse than other big-budget clubs. They are located in the country’s capital city, with plenty for the players to do. They have a 48,000-seat stadium and a large, devoted fanbase. With they have in common with Monaco is that they play in Ligue 1.

The French first division is sometimes unfairly maligned by Anglophone media pundits, but it is largely – PSG, Monaco, Lyon and Marseille aside – a developmental league. Its level of play is undoubtedly inferior to that of the Premier League, La Liga or the Bundesliga, and the question of whether it lulls its stars into a false sense of security has been brought up multiple times. Neymar himself provided fodder for this theory by missing his team elimination against Real Madrid and later scored five goals against Metz in league play. Are stars who play for PSG doomed to pile up the empty-calorie fireworks locally but fold against European competition?

Ironically, the main argument against this point is Monaco circa 2017, who upset Manchester City in rather emphatic attacking fashion. Yet, that Monaco squad was manned by youngsters Kylian Mbappé, Tiémoué Bakayoko, Lamine Kurzawa and Yannick Carrasco. In a way, they might have been too young and naive to fear Man City. They were also good enough to win Ligue 1 in front of a loaded PSG team.

So if it isn’t the domestic league that’s the problem, the issue is internal. And if it is, Neymar has contributed to whatever situation he’s now trying to escape. As I write these lines, Barcelona have reportedly made an initial offer to take back the Brazilian. How they can match the demands of Financial Fair Play while acquiring Neymar AND Antoine Griezmann is completely beyond me, but we shall see. However, just as Falcao and James Rodriguez were ready to leave Monaco almost upon arrival, this newest Neymar saga, whether he winds up leaving or staying due to the lack of a realistic market for him, shows that the question of whether PSG can keep superstars in their prime remains complete.

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