Before the world turned fearful, of a pandemic that takes lives and dissolves future planning, a major festival was in the Paris diary for the last weekend in August. It would have celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of Paris Saint-Germain. Its centrepiece was to have been an All-Stars match between legends of the past and the present team.
Into which category the most stellar footballer – ranked by price, and perhaps by talent – of PSG’s history would have fitted was the subject of some speculation. Neymar, the €222million (Dh904m) man, has spent as much of the last year trying to become an ex-PSG footballer as he has living up to the role of figurehead for the ambitious French champions.
Last week, Neymar learned from his mansion in Rio de Janeiro, 6,000 miles from Paris, that he had won his third successive Ligue 1 title. He was far away, detached, because he flew to Brazil as the Covid-19 crisis reached Europe. He had been instructed to ready himself to come back until the French government declared last Tuesday there would be no organised team sport in France until at least September.
The 2019-20 Ligue 1 season has now been declared closed, and PSG, 12 points clear at the top of the table when matches were suspended in March, made champions. A PSG footballer can expect to be named Player of the Year, too, for this abbreviated campaign. Restless or not, Neymar’s name must feature in deliberations.
He scored 13 of PSG’s 75 Ligue 1 goals; he assisted another six. Set those figures against the fact that Neymar missed 12 of PSG’s 27 games because of injury or suspension, and they become startlingly impressive.
And set those figures against the atmosphere surrounding Neymar last August, when he and his entourage had made it clear he wanted to return to the Barcelona who reluctantly sold him in 2017, when PSG paid his €222m buyout clause, and they are a reminder of why Neymar carries the highest price-tag of any footballer ever bought and sold.
Back at the beginning of 2019-2020, banners at the Parc des Princes, prepared by PSG’s own supporters, were wishing injury on the game’s most expensive player.
The scorn would fade, though, and the cheers gradually returned, the last of them heard from outside the PSG stadium during the eerie last episode of the pre-Covid-19 shutdown, when Neymar, with a masterly and disciplined performance, helped PSG defeat Borussia Dortmund, earning a place in the Champions League quarter-finals.
The match took place behind close doors, but around the walls of the stadium supporters gathered noisily in their thousands, in defiance of police advice.
Mission Champions League
The Champions League is the competition Neymar, 28, was explicitly brought to PSG to win. He won it with Barcelona, but has twice been knocked out at the last 16 stage with PSG, and reacted so angrily when Manchester United eliminated the Parisians last year that he began this season with a two-match Uefa suspension, during which his father and senior advisor, Neymar senior, announced that negotiations with Barcelona for his return there were “still open”, further aggravating PSG fans.
Until the great lockdown, those negotiations had not closed. Nor had momentum for the transfer. Lionel Messi, the Barcelona captain, would like Neymar back at Camp Nou; Neymar has told PSG, where his contract runs until 2022, he would like to go. But the landscape is so altered by global events that the move now seems utterly fanciful.
PSG will not bear a huge loss on their investment, not least after a shortened season when Neymar, absent for almost half the Ligue 1 matches, has been earning around €600,000 a week.
But a recession, post pandemic, is inevitable. "Nobody can any longer spend €222m," Barcelona head coach Quique Setien told Gazzetta dello Sport. Javier Tebas, the head of Spain's La Liga, where Barca are one of several clubs to have imposed heavy salary cuts during the sport's closedown added: "Neymar is not on Barcelona's priority list."
PSG are not shielded from the economic shortfalls that the suspension of matches – and in their case, the abandoning of a quarter of the domestic season – means but nor are they obliged to cash in on one of their major playing assets, Neymar or Kylian Mbappe, to cover losses, if and when the transfer market opens.
They also hold out hope for a happy ending to a season that the club and Neymar began in such vexed circumstances. There may be no All-Star Golden Jubilee match at the end of August, but if the coronavirus crisis eases sufficiently, there might well be a final of the postponed Champions League that very weekend.
PSG intend to be in it, even if they must, because of the French government ban, play their quarter-final and any semi-final ‘home’ legs outside France. That may just suit their restless superstar, the man who, for a long time, has wanted to be playing his club football somewhere other than Paris.