After the supposed the statement of ambition came what felt an admission of defeat. “Neymar can leave PSG if the right offer comes in,” said Paris Saint-Germain’s sporting director Leonardo this week. The coup of plucking the world’s most expensive player from seemingly the planet’s most glamorous club has backfired.
Neymar could be the €222 million (Dh913m) man who has come and gone in two years. And if Barcelona cannot fund the package to re-sign the Brazilian, PSG have a costly mess, a problem of their own creation.
It is rare signing a footballer who has scored 51 goals in 58 games and won five trophies in two seasons could be called a failure, but Neymar is that exception. The statistics, coupled with domestic dominance in France, make him a superficial success. The context is more damning.
Neymar’s failure to return for pre-season training contributed to the sense he is emblematic of much of what is wrong with football. His conspicuous egotism scarcely feels conducive to creating the right environment. Where they needed a unit, PSG became a star vehicle, and one in which they are entitled to think that Kylian Mbappe will prove the brighter star anyway. Principles were warped, priorities ignored.
Burdened by Neymar’s transfer fee, lumbered with his wages, there was an imbalance in the PSG side. With the spending concentrated on the front three, the midfield trio sometimes included both a defender and a winger. The substitute striker was Eric Choupo-Moting, the free transfer from relegated Stoke City. In a year when Liverpool’s collective commitment helped them win the Champions League, PSG ignored the principles of team-building; pity the poor full-back supposed to receive cover from Neymar when he did not track back.
In a broader context where PSG and Manchester City are often compared, new forces took opposing approaches. City's club record signing of Rodri – far cheaper than Neymar, much less famous – showed they were not blinded by stardust but targeting players to fill specific needs in the team.
City have a habit of signing good characters. Do PSG? Because when owner Nasser Al-Khelaifi warned players about "celebrity behaviour", it was hard to escape the feeling he had one particular player in mind. Neymar’s feels a toxic brand of narcissism. If he left Barcelona in part to get out of Lionel Messi’s shadow and enhance his chance of winning the Ballon d’Or, he willingly gave up a place in one of history’s great forward lines.
Only Champions League success could bring vindication and successive last-16 exits show Paris Saint-Germain are getting further away. They have become flat-track bullies and if Neymar, sidelined by a foot injury, was blameless for last season’s exit to Manchester United, his subsequent reaction, in the form an Instagram rant, incurred a three-match ban that will rule him out of half of the group stage in the forthcoming campaign.
Factor in a separate three-game suspension for punching a spectator and, besides making a mockery of the bonus he tended to receive for, among other things, applauding fans, and it contributes to an image of a spoilt child.
Increasingly, it has felt all about Neymar. The last two years have been underwhelming for club and country alike, teams configured with him in mind not coming close to realising their ambitions. Perhaps it is a coincidence that Brazil won this summer's Copa America in his absence, but perhaps not. Paris Saint-Germain require a different culture, and not merely to suit manager Thomas Tuchel's hard-running style of play. Neymar needs to be more of a team man, which he can perhaps only do in another team. Because if the world-record transfer was designed to make PSG the game's outstanding side, something far worse transpired.