Four years of Neymar at PSG: Has the world-record transfer been a success?

In Depth

The news was gob-smacking. The transfer perhaps the biggest of all time. It was July 2017 and Marcelo Bechler, a Brazilian journalist based in Barcelona, had got the scoop: Neymar was on the move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain.

It was a once-in-a-generation transfer story, one of the world’s most high-profile players moving from an established super-elite club to one of European football’s nouveau riche. And that is before we even get to the transfer fee.

To make it happen, PSG had met the Brazilian’s buyout clause of €220million, not just breaking the world record but obliterating it, smashing the €105million Manchester United had paid for Paul Pogba the previous summer right out of the ball park.

Finally, it was completed on August 3, 2017. Neymar was a PSG player and the market had undergone a paradigm shift. Four years on, though, what to make of the move? Has the most expensive transfer of all-time been a success?

The immediately obvious answer is ‘no’. Or at least not the ideal that was envisioned by both parties: PSG as Champions of Europe, Neymar stepping out of Lionel Messi’s shadow to become the first Brazilian since Kaka to claim the Ballon d’Or.

But that ‘no’ does not tell the entire story. The ideal is rarely reached by anyone and success depends on what you set out to achieve in the first place. So what else can be said for Neymar’s time in the French capital, what nuances and caveats can be added?

Firstly, the Neymar transfer must be placed in its wider context. The post-2011 PSG project has never been a purely sporting one, but a mission wrapped up with ambitions of influence. Qatar Sports Investment has not thrown upwards of €1billion at their club out of their love of beautiful football.

The idea from the start was to create a super-brand as much as a super-club and the move for Neymar – one of the world’s most recognisable and marketable sportspeople – was the powerplay in that strategy.

Since 2017, the brand has certainly moved on to another level. The 2018 launch of the PSG and Nike Air Jordan partnership saw the club’s merchandise has become as much fashion accessory as football kit and, though it is not entirely down to a single individual, whether the collaboration would have come about without Neymar – a long-time Jordan fan and Air Jordan collector – is doubtful.

Likewise, PSG’s social media following has skyrocketed. According to Deloitte, the club had 4.1million Twitter followers and 7.2million Instagram followers. By 2020 that had shot up to 8.5million and 32.5million for Twitter and Instagram respectively, the latter more than old order clubs like Liverpool or Arsenal. For QSI, each of those followers will be seen as another tiny little victory in their quest for more positive image and soft power.

Yet, to repurpose a Johan Cruyffism, have you ever seen a Twitter follower score a goal? Football, for all the institutional and business elements, is still about success on the pitch and that, as mentioned, has proven elusive.

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Neymar is the footballing equivalent of a genuine Ming vase – very pricey but extremely delicate – and PSG have found that out to their great cost.

For his first two seasons at the Parc des Princes, Neymar missed the exact games that he had been brought in to help PSG win. In 2018, a fractured metatarsal saw him sit out from February to May and missed the second leg of PSG’s 5-2 aggregate humbling at the hands of Real Madrid.

In 2019, Neymar missed the months of February, March and April with exactly the same injury, which is hardly his fault – indeed, the level of protection he receives from Ligue 1 referees is sometimes appalling – but certainly affected his and his club’s standing in world football.

That year, Neymar was not even nominated for the Ballon D’Or, never mind in the top five, as he had been in each of his last three seasons in Catalunya.

Neymar’s 2019 was also marred by personal issues and scandal. There was another iteration of the recurring story of him missing games around his sister’s birthday and pictures of him partying at Brazil’s carnival emerged while he was supposed to be recovering from his broken foot. Far more seriously, there was an allegation of sexual assault that came before the Copa America, of which Neymar was later acquitted.

More recently, another sexual assault allegation has come to light, this time made by an employee of his sponsor Nike, who dropped Neymar as a result. He was also reported to be planning a lockdown-breaking super-party for New Year’s Eve 2020 while Brazil was firmly in the cruel grip of the coronavirus pandemic. At times, for all his popularity, he, and therefore his presence at the club, feels toxic.

Despite that, and despite Neymar repeatedly being reported to want to leave France, PSG have been desperate to keep him. Perhaps because they finally feel they are getting closer to that aim of European glory.

In 2020, they won a domestic treble under Thomas Tuchel and reached the Champions League final for the first time. In 2021, another semi-final was reached. Both runs came with a fit Neymar showing the on-pitch genius that gave him his fame.

While we cannot look at the art without considering the artist that produced it, when Neymar does gets the ball at his feet, he remains one of the best in the world, a balletic, graceful presence in the midst of modern football’s eye-watering speed and lung-bursting physicality.

Now, his contract has been extended until 2025 and he looks set to stay, to give all of his supposed peak years to the Parisian club in return for great, thick wads of money.

The club and its owners must feel that he has achieved enough so far to be worth that investment, whether that be in return for exposure or for his footballing talents.

But to be considered a rip-roaring success more widely, outside the walls of the PSG hierarchy’s offices? Well, even with all the nuances and caveats, he’ll need to achieve what he set out to.

In public, Neymar says he has now changed his focus from the Ballon d’Or, stating in July 2021 that “What matters is that PSG are champions.”

But if PSG are champions, then the individual accolades will come as a result. His rhetoric may have shifted, but Neymar will be under no illusions as to that fact.

By Joshua Law

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