“What can you do with a general, when he stops being a general?”, was a song from that cheesy old film, White Christmas, but the football world is starting to ask that same question of Neymar, who may be the most unwanted gift of the close season.
Paris Saint-Germain, according to media reports, have told the Brazilian to search for a new club, but bizarrely, if he doesn’t go elsewhere, his contract has a clause that will earn him an extension on his current deal that will keep him with PSG until his mid-30s.
Almost without anyone noticing, Neymar was 30 in February and no longer a vision of what lies ahead. In short, we have seen his peak and it didn’t quite match up to expectations. You cannot blame PSG for that, because Zlatan Ibrahimovic was served well by a few years in Ligue 1 and Kylian Mbappé is still flourishing as a free-scoring young player. Neymar went to Paris to become a superstar, to win personal and team honours of the highest order and at the same time, he would be the centrepiece of the Brazilian national team and perhaps win a World Cup or two.
With PSG, he’s won four Ligue 1 titles and three Coupe de France finals. He’s reached the UEFA Champions League final, losing to Bayern Munich, but he’s been part of a PSG side that loses composure when it truly matters. PSG can win Ligue 1 at a canter, with or without Neymar – he’s played 92 out of a possible 179 league games in his time in Paris, a very expensive 51%.
He was supposed to be the club’s talisman, a figure to lead them to a higher level of glory. Nothing much actually changed: in the five years pre-Neymar, PSG won 11 major trophies and reached four quarter-finals in the Champions League. In the five Neymar seasons, they’ve won nine major trophies, reached a Champions League final, one semi-final and three times failed to go beyond the last 16.
PSG’s strategy around team managers and acquiring talent has to be questioned, from the soft power play of signing Neymar in the first place, to filling a team with huge egos and creating a star culture that requires no end of stroking and reassuring. Neymar appears to have been treated, to some extent, like a prize ballerina, with PSG adopting a softly-softly approach whenever he steps out of line. Some managers have not appreciated this velvet-gloved player discipline.
But then, when you’re paying so much money out to a player, vast quantities of cotton wool are certainly needed. Already he earns around € 90 million a year and if his current deal is extended, he will be earning even more than Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. PSG have slipped up here, for if they have decided he is no longer aligned to their plans, then why did they give him a lucrative deal back in December that expires in 2025? And then why on earth include a clause that makes any divorce even more messy? Sometimes, football really does gets the people it deserves.
But who will take him of PSG’s hands? It has taken them a long time to realise the Neymar experiment has not been a success. His fitness has been suspect, his contribution inconsistent and occasionally, he gets himself into scrapes. Hence, he has lived in the shadow of the big two, CR7 and Messi, who are fitter, more consistent and less distracted by fast-living. He has also missed out on the prize he once craved, the Ballon d’Or, the closest he ever got to winning was in 2013 and 2015 when he finished third in the voting as a Barcelona player. He was ranked 16th in 2021 after two years without a glimpse of him.
With such a contract and a diminishing reputation, who would take him on? Newcastle United have been mentioned, unsurprisingly given they are in the same position PSG were in a decade ago. They yearn for credibility and a statement signing. Chelsea may have thrown their hat in the ring, but they would be a foolish and extravagant move. It would seem unlikely that Barcelona and Real Madrid would go for him, particularly as PSG were finessed-out of signing Mbappé by the latter. Manchester City could afford him, but would Neymar fit into a system-driven team coached by Pep Guardiola? And what of Manchester United, desperate to climb out of their current malaise, but would another ageing star merely underline how wretched they have become?
PSG have a problem and it is nearly as big as Neymar’s dilemma. Nobody is going to spare much sympathy for either party, but if there is a club that can afford to take a loss on the chin, it is surely PSG. As for Neymar, he’s got a World Cup to prepare for. He needs a club and he needs football at the highest possible level. He’s running out of options because he is seen as representing football’s era of hubris.
Yet out of this mess could be a lesson for clubs. The risk of over-paying a player who stops being an asset and becomes a liability is something they have to be aware of. We may have seen the best of Neymar, albeit fleetingly, but his story should serve as a warning for any club that pushes the boundaries so far to gain a competitive edge. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work.