“PSG open to letting Neymar leave”, more or less read a few of the headings in most sports channels on Sunday evening. Although those exact words have not been said to any media outlet on the record, PSG’s president Nasser Al-Khelaifi did give an interview to France Football on Saturday during which he stated that “players have to assume their responsibilities even more than before […] And if they don’t agree, the doors are open. Ciao! I don’t want to have any celebrity behaviour anymore”.
PSG’s dressing room has plenty of characters, but the “celebrity behaviour” bit can only have one target, and that is the indeed talented Brazilian forward, who has become one of the biggest divas in sports. He’s got the whole package of a prima donna, both on and off the pitch. His demeanour towards team mates, opponents and refs has deteriorated season after season, while his legendary posse has increased at the same pace that his reputation as a top-level footballer has decreased. The move from Barcelona to PSG has not helped Neymar, nor Barcelona... not even PSG.
Sorry about the autobiographical, almost Hunteresque reference, but it’s relevant to the story: For professional reasons, I spent quite a decent amount of time in Brazil just when Neymar made it big and started to negotiate with Real Madrid first and then with Barcelona. Because of business that have nothing to do with football, I worked with one of the Santos’ directors responsible to sell Neymar and had first-hand info about the status of the negotiations. Back then, I really rooted for Neymar to join Real Madrid. I was watching him play live quite often and marvelled at his skill, his speed, his ability to grab the match by the neck and drive his opponents mad. Coupled with Ganso, the duo was so good that they made an average forward like Andre de Souza look like a killer back in 2010. Dinamo Kyev would soon discover that, without his two partners, he wasn’t.
The story has been told by a few sources, so I don’t think I’m giving any scoop away: Neymar’s signing for Real Madrid went South after the first live interaction between the player, his father and Florentino Perez. Neymar asked Perez why he should join Real Madrid, and what he heard in response was quintessential Perez. Paraphrasing, “Real Madrid is the best club in the world, that’s why you should join. You come to a squad with the best players in the planet. Mind you, I can’t give you any certainties that you’ll start. In fact, you’ll need time to settle, and only the coach will decide if and when you’re ready to be a Real Madrid starter.”
Of course, that is not what the player wanted to hear. At that time he had eight different multinational or very large Brazilian companies sponsoring him in Brazil. He was probably the most marketable youngster in Brazil. His ego was already way too high for his own good. So, even though his agent strongly favoured a move to Madrid, father and son decided to talk to Barcelona. Sandro Rosell joined the picture, said exactly what Neymar expected, and the rest is well-known history.
Even though Perez is rumoured to have spent a few years infatuated with Neymar after that, the fact is that his speech was a trap for the Brazilian. Of course, Neymar would have started in a matter of weeks after his transfer, but Perez wanted to test his ego, his resolve to play for Real Madrid and his level of maturity. Neymar did not pass.
I have to say that once he joined Barcelona, I was impressed with the way he respected Messi and tried to fit in with the scheme, and even believed he was learning how to carry the team to become a Brazilian version of Messi in terms of how to influence a match. Too optimistic indeed. Once he had a huge offer, he fled to Paris, to a monopoly team in a secondary league. Florentino’s test kept proving extremely smart. As it was to be expected, time has only exacerbated Neymar’s weaknesses on and off the pitch. Without the right guidance, he’s become an undisciplined, arrogant footballer, attracting more noise than titles and obviously ignoring the basic rules of behaviour that all players of his level follow to avoid trouble off the pitch.
I admit I’m still biased in favour of Neymar. I harboured so many hopes when I watched him play for Santos that even his dominant seasons with Barcelona made me still half expect that Florentino could architect another coup to get him to play in Madrid as an accomplished playmaker, raised in the shade of Messi only to bloom at the Santiago Bernabeu. But it is evident that he has damaged his career terribly as a top-level player in these last two seasons with PSG, even adding an element of injury-proneness that wasn’t there before he left Barcelona. With Hazard’s signing and the recent developments in terms of injuries and legal trouble, Neymar has become damaged goods not only for Real Madrid, but for any other top-level club that could potentially pay his transfer fee and his salary. Unless he undergoes a radical, Rocky vs Drago training recovery that also changes his mindset, it’s hard to see Neymar contend as a top three player in the future. And, amazingly enough, that was evident ever since he fell for Florentino’s loaded response.
Sometimes it’s good to know we’re in good hands.