The genesis of Neymar’s world record-shattering 2017 move from FC Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain wasn’t design but opportunity.
The recruitment of the Brazilian superstar forward wasn’t part of some carefully laid plan. PSG didn’t sign the then-25-year-old for a $263 million-ish fee, more than doubling Paul Pogba’s previous world record, after some years-long pursuit the way Barca did. Word reached the moneyed Parisians that he might be available to them, as Neymar had apparently grown tired of living in Lionel Messi’s shadow. So they pounced.
Because PSG figured that having the best player in the world who was available to them could speed up their journey to the club’s ultimate and publicly stated objective: winning the Champions League. The vast Qatari investment in the once-languishing club, which always had the potential to be a juggernaut but had never really come close, wasn’t about dominating France. That was almost a given. And five league titles and nine domestic cups in six years have confirmed as much.
PSG was trying to become a global power.
The club, after all, was a prestige play for the Qatari government. And building a brand that didn’t transcend the fourth- or fifth-best league in the world – after the Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga and arguably Serie A – would be a poor return on its outlay. But signing Neymar so perfectly aligned with the club’s larger goals that it couldn’t resist. (It didn’t hurt that the timing allowed Qatar to flex its muscle during the blockade, making for some convenient geopolitical posturing.)
But the whole thing hasn’t entirely worked out the way anybody had hoped.
PSG sold an awful lot of jerseys. And the boost in credibility and cachet was instant. But the club already had those things. And it’s not really made much progress otherwise.
Sure, Neymar scored 28 goals in 30 appearances in his first season in France. And he’s bagged 20 in 23 so far this season, even though he isn’t a striker and has to share the chances with Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappé, both huge stars in their own right.
But Neymar was injured for the crucial return leg in last season’s Champions League round of 16, when PSG had a 3-1 deficit to Real Madrid to overcome – after a first leg in which the Brazilian wasn’t hugely consequential. A metatarsal fracture meant that he would miss the last three and a half months of the season. PSG lost the second leg as well and made it six straight seasons in which one of the world’s most expensive squads didn’t reach the semis.
On Wednesday, PSG announced that a new metatarsal injury will keep Neymar out for 10 weeks, although surgery was avoided. For now, at least.
That means he will once again miss the round of 16 of the Champions League, against a resurgent Manchester United, on Feb. 12 and March 6. If PSG advances, Neymar could be back in time for the quarterfinals, if he recovers ahead of schedule.
If the injury lingers, however, or reoccurs a third time, it’s perfectly conceivable that Neymar once again misses the business-end of the season. If PSG gets any closer to European glory this season, Neymar may well have had little to do with it.
Such has been the tenor of Neymar’s second campaign with PSG. He was injured in a Coupe de France game last Wednesday, coming off in the 63rd minute. And Neymar had completed 90 minutes just three times since Nov. 11, courtesy of a persistent adductor injury and additional rest given to him by manager Thomas Tuchel.
Meanwhile, Neymar been the subject of unabating rumors of a move to Real Madrid or a return to Barca from the very first day he set foot in Paris, suggesting a widely held suspicion that he is somehow slumming it in the French capital.
In his absence, Mbappé, whom PSG made the second-most expensive signing ever the same summer it got Neymar, has confirmed his status as the best young striker in the world. He’s only just turned 20 and is already a World Cup winner, playing an instrumental role in France’s run to glory last summer.
Neymar turns 27 on Tuesday. His significant workload as a teenager with Santos and frequent appearances with Brazil in summer tournaments suggest that, like many prodigies, injuries in his late 20s might only grow more frequent. His transfer value will begin to decline soon.
PSG, perpetually juggling its finances to stay out of Financial Fair Play trouble, might just be better off cashing in on Neymar this summer – when Real and Barca would both surely still be eager to buy, as would any big club trying to send a signal – and building around Mbappé.
There would be no shame in that. Signing Neymar was an ambitious thing to do that further buttressed the club’s credentials as a superclub.
Because a bloated stat sheet alone, absent that big European trophy, doesn’t make Neymar worth all that money. The Neymar experiment is at a crossroads.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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