Neymar is stuck at PSG as football’s most expensive headache – let that be a lesson
As the clock ticked down on the end of the summer transfer window in Europe, it became clear that Neymar would not be heading back to Barcelona, despite the forward's desire to force through the move and the frantic bartering over increasingly complex and outlandish cash-plus-player deals cooked up in recent weeks.
Neymar and PSG are stuck with each other for the time being at least, trapped in a loveless marriage which seems an age away from the deal that brought the Brazilian to the French capital in a world-record €222 million ($264 million) transfer two years ago.
Back in that heady summer, expectations were high on both sides: PSG, with the ready flow of cash from their Qatari owners, were desperate to make the signing that stated their intent as truly belonging among Europe’s footballing superpowers.
Neymar – then 25 – joined a squad that boasted big-money signings such as Angel Di Maria and Edinson Cavani, and which had teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe on the way.
But by bagging the biggest name – and arguably best player – outside of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, PSG gave the most conspicuous indication that they meant business.
For his part, Neymar eyed the chance to step out from the shadow of Messi at Barcelona, to win things with PSG and pick up the personal accolades that he would always be denied while playing alongside his famous teammate in the number 10 shirt.
Staggering sums of money oiled the wheels of Neymar’s move, but it was misplaced yearning for something on both sides that neither, realistically, could ever achieve with each other.
The signs that the deal was a misadventure were there early on, as Neymar argued with his teammates over taking penalties, while reportedly grumbling about the state of the Ligue 1 pitches and the refereeing in France.
He was locked in a Parisian romance, but Neymar was already said to be casting flirtatious glances back to Spain just a few months after joining PSG.
That speculation has rumbled on ever since, even as Neymar has helped PSG to back-to-back Ligue 1 titles along with domestic cup success, while adding a personal tally of 51 goals and 29 assists in 58 appearances.
But with home glory seen as the bare minimum, PSG crave much bigger European prizes that have not yet arrived in his two-year stay.
Granted, Neymar has been unlucky with injury, missing a large chunk of his first season and another at the end of last season with foot problems. And while it’s futile to speculate to as to how PSG would have fared with him in the team for the two legs of their Champions League tie against Manchester United last season, it’s not unfair to suggest that the French side would not have progressed much further in the competition, given their Champions League track record and the superior caliber of teams lying in it elsewhere.
The sense is that Neymar quickly came to realize that PSG – and the French league – is not the place to serve his ambitions, while the club could argue the same about him, given the near-constant media speculation over his desire to return to Spain and debacles such as his no-show for the start of pre-season training just a few weeks ago.
Neymar was an expensive addition to a club which, even with the near-guarantee of domestic success, have so often looked heavy on style but lacking substance.
PSG have burned through managers in recent years without any sense of putting a system in place, in contrast to what clubs such as Liverpool have done with Jurgen Klopp and likewise Manchester City with Pep Guardiola. (That’s not to mention clubs such as Barcelona and Real Madrid, where a way of playing or will to win seems engrained in the fabric of the club, regardless of the personnel.)
As the most costly piece in an incomplete jigsaw, Neymar is both a symptom and a victim of PSG's failings.
PSG are by no means the only team to be lumbered with expensive misfits – a prime example would be the case of Alexis Sanchez at Manchester United, a player brought into a club trying to rediscover its philosophy, in their case after the departure of a managerial legend.
Both Sanchez and Neymar are examples of what UK sportswriter Sam Wallace has described as ‘untransferrables’ – players whose outrageous price tags and wages have made them so difficult to offload to other teams when they become unwanted. (Sanchez recently departed Old Trafford on a season-long loan at Inter Milan, with the English club still paying a reported £175,000 of his wages.)
PSG, however, are still stuck with a far more expensive problem in Neymar.
Some of the club’s fans voiced their discontent in protests earlier this season, with chants branding the footballer “a son of a b*tch” over his desire to leave. Leading figures from the PSG ultras are said to have met with club representatives to avoid any further displays of open animosity, but it’s clear that when manager Thomas Tuchel does bring Neymar back into the team, it will take significant efforts from the Brazilian to win the PSG faithful back around, however stellar his performances.
With the closing of the transfer window, the summer soap opera has at least been brought to an end for now as both sides know where they stand for the immediate future.
But the cautionary tale for football clubs and certain players should be clear: beware expensive follies that could end up being much harder to get out of than they were to get into.
By Liam Tyler