London- At the end of Barcelona’s comeback against Paris Saint-Germain in March, their hero leapt on to the advertising boards at the north end of the Camp Nou, fans surging forward at his feet, still barely able to believe what they had just seen.
At first he swayed a little but they held him steady and so he stood above them, fist raised, taking it in. From below, a match photographer, Santiago Garcés, pointed his camera. Within two days, 70 million people had seen the picture of the night, which had swiftly become the most-viewed picture in Barça’s history. “People say it’s the best anyone’s ever taken of Leo Messi,” Garcés said.
Hang on a minute: Leo Messi? Astonishingly, Barcelona scored three times in seven minutes and 17 seconds. But it was not the Argentinian at the heart of them all, it was Neymar – curling in a superb free-kick, winning and taking a penalty and providing the delivery from which Sergi Roberto scored.
That was his eighth assist, the Champions League’s leader, and all of them had come from open play. He had led throughout, taking responsibility and taking hits: hyperactive, creative and everywhere. “This was the best game I’ve played,” he said. But the enduring image of a historic night was Messi.
With Barça it almost always is and maybe there is something in that? The argument most consistently put forward for Neymar’s decision to leave for PSG is that he believes it is time to stand alone. There is the money – he is set to become the world’s best-paid player, his salary will reportedly double while his father will grow even richer, receiving €36m (£32m) commission to go with almost €100m he has been paid by Barcelona – and it would be naive to dismiss that as a fundamental factor. But status is not always measured by current account; shadow is a word used a lot of late and the one Messi casts is long.
That, at least, is the theory: Neymar wants to step centre-stage and lead; he can now play where he wants and how he wants, not have to adapt to others. If he stayed at Barcelona it would never be about him and nor would the Ballon d’Or. At the Parc des Princes, success would be his own; PSG would be his team, players brought to his specifications and he will be surrounded by his people, friends and countrymen. In this scenario Dani Alves’s signing is re-evaluated, his role recast as the man who convinced him, showed him that they would do it his way. So, it seems, is the way Neymar, and others, have seen his role over the past few years.
On the face of it, the theory is not flawless. With Messi and Luis Suárez, Neymar formed a front three that many considered the best in the world, maybe the best football has seen. He arrived saying that he had come to play with Messi and if his status within the trident was not the same as the Argentinian’s it was enhanced – at least to start with – and they genuinely were a collective. A successful one: they won, which meant that he won. A treble in the first season was followed by a double in the second, even if last season’s Copa del Rey represented a disappointment.
In footballing terms, it did work; last season was not judged the failure of the front three, even when the focus on them rather than the midfield was interpreted as Barcelona losing their religion. Friendship was endlessly presented as the secret to their success. At times it was a little sugar-sweet and the three men repeated the same easily digestible lines as if reading from a script, but that did not make it untrue – although the most significant connection was Suárez-Messi. They genuinely get on: when it emerged Neymar was contemplating leaving, Suárez and Messi tried to talk him round and jealousy, so palpable in other cases elsewhere, rarely surfaced in theirs. The players are genuinely sorry to be losing Neymar, who was popular in the dressing room.
The suggestion that Neymar and all his team-mates had adapt their game to suit (to serve) Messi should not go entirely unchallenged, either. It was the Argentinian who shifted from striker to the right and then dropped deeper and more to the middle, benefitting the other two, who often had a No10 behind them, a trend that seemed to be deepening in pre‑season, Neymar inside closer to Suárez. A simple count of Messi’s passes to Neymar, some ending in goals, some not, helps undermine the suggestion that the Brazilian might be better off without him.
Yet it is true that Neymar’s place to the left was not the free, central role he has with Brazil, something he is reminded of every time international duty rolls round. It is also true that his best spell at Barcelona came when he took responsibility with Messi’s injury. Nor was his status the same, celebrated though his was.
Emotionally, the desire for more is easy enough to understand, if not always share. Even in a team sport, ambition can mean going it alone and being the very, very best might feel like it is just within reach. There is one flaw: Messi still exists and may be even more of an opponent now.
Besides, eventually that status was supposed to be within reach in Spain, too. Neymar was runner-up in the Ballon d’Or when Messi won it (in truth, it was Suárez who could feel overlooked). It felt like a first step, not an ultimate aim. There was time, Barcelona thought. Neymar is 25, Messi and Suárez are 30. The present is already partly his, the future would be all his. Maybe he was in more of a hurry than they realised.
Last season they renewed his contract until 2021 and although he had talked to PSG he said he was delighted to continue. If that was true then, he seems to have changed his mind. He had at least started to doubt. “We’re close friends and I want him to stay but I know the situation that the finds himself in,” Gerard Piqué, the Barça defender, said.
Neymar’s departure would be a huge blow that €222m will not diminish entirely, not in this market and still less in the hands of this board, mistrusted by many. It can be usefully invested for sure but as Piqué put it, “there’s no one the same as him on the market” – and the image is of a club debilitated.
The political impact is colossal. Neymar’s signing cost the president at the time, Sandro Rosell, forced to resign and now in jail, more than he would ever say and more than he could ever imagine. His exit weakens Rossell’s vice-president and successor, Josep Maria Bartomeu, too.
Neymar has his detractors, of course, but in all probability his departure would also leave the team significantly weakened. Selling him was not the plan. Barcelona will continue and, who knows, they may even emerge stronger. But they know how good he is. Messi certainly does. Neymar’s contract extension, like that of Suárez, was seen as a prerequisite to convince Messi to continue, too. Messi had wanted guarantees of the club’s ambition; keeping the best forward line in their history was central to that. His team-mates secured, at the start of this summer, he signed the deal that runs until he is 34 and Neymar is 29. Many had feared that he would not.
After the PSG victory, Neymar had been asked about Messi’s future. “Don’t worry,” he replied, “I am sure Messi will stay.” He did not say anything about himself. This was not supposed to happen and certainly not like this. His €222m buyout clause was intended as a Not For Sale sign and the world transfer record will now double, but given the way the market was moving it may ultimately be revealed as low. Meant as a deterrent, it encouraged PSG. When the story broke it did not seem possible, but Barça had left the door ajar.
So it went on and on, more damaging with each day. “There’s only one way out: Neymar has to say something,” Andrés Iniesta said. The Brazilian didn’t. All summer he has been the centre of attention, the focus on him this time, but there was silence. With it, the bitterness grew, a growing sense that he was best forgotten, packed off with his father never to return. Some feel betrayed, let down. Others wonder where this started and who is to blame. How did it come to this?
On 19 July, Bartomeu said: “We’re relaxed about Neymar.” Originally, it had seemed implausible but by then they had come to realise that the threat was real. There was little real comfort in the imminent cash injection; instead there were attempts to talk him round. Ernesto Valverde, the new manager, called Neymar “necessary” – a player of a unique talent, whose impact at PSG could, and should, be immensely significant. Whether PSG, and Ligue 1, is the right stage for him is another issue – if it is exposure and status he seeks, will it be satisfied there?
“He could go to any club in the world,” Piqué said. “What does he want? More money or more titles? I could understand that he wants to go to be a leader, but not for a sporting project. With all due respect, he is betting everything on one hand [the Champions League].”
Piqué was playing a hand of his own. A few days before, he had published a picture with Neymar and two words in the silence – “Se queda”, or he is staying.
The story was dead or so everyone momentarily thought. But three days on, with no movement from Neymar, not a word, Piqué confirmed everything except the one thing he had actually said. Neymar was thinking of going; this was real. And that was a concern, no cause for celebration, no opportunity. This was the man who many at Barcelona consider the second‑best player in the world leaving them.
Piqué admitted that saying Neymar was staying was what he hoped, not what he knew. Saying it might help make it so, maybe he could convince the Brazilian to stay. For his own sake, not just theirs. “He doesn’t know what to do,” Piqué said. “We’ll try to help him make the right decision.” Now the decision seems to be made. Whether it is the right one is yet to be seen.
The Guardian Sport