Neymar: The sun king loses his shine

“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.

In praise of the hooped sock

IT IS easy to be critical about some of the football shirts being created these days, but when you talk about socks, there is one underused element of hosiery the game should never discard – the hooped stocking.

There’s something a little jaunty about the hooped sock. It is more interesting than the plain version, more durable than a white sock and has the air of the cavalier about it. While we tend to salivate over a decent striped shirt (defined stripes, not trailing blood or Jackson Pollock type splashes), we often overlook the sock. In fact, going back in time, when books and directories used to list a club’s colours, it was “Blue shirts, White shorts”, rarely, if ever were the last pieces of the uniform referred to.

And yet, these socks would complement a striped or hooped shirt perfectly. Take, for example, Newcastle United’s socks from the mid-1970s, Supermac’s bandy legs encased in some very continental-looking hosiery. Did they not look better than black with white tops? And go back to the pioneering days of football and look at how the kit of the Royal Engineers, Queens Park and others displayed shorts and socks that mirrored each other.

But logistics played their part in the plethora of hooped jerseys of the late 19th century, quite simply the looms were often in short supply that could produce vertical stripes.

Arsenal toyed with hoops in the late 1960s, their classy red and white shirts were finished off with navy blue (thin) banded socks. They looked good, but why blue? And why were they dropped in favour of red socks? Their reintroduction was a throwback to the Chapman era.

One of the best designs has to be Barcelona’s socks in 1974, the red and blue hoops adorned by Johan Cruyff. You only need to glance at the images of Cruyff at that time to know this was a cosmopolitan team making full use of its visual identity. These glamorous creations probably did more than most to link hooped legwear to the continental club.

There is something a little “rugby” about a hooped sock, rather like the shirts that seem to be more prevalent in the oval-balled game. Horizontal stripes certainly make players look bigger, both their torsos and lower limbs. Hence, rugby may feel more comfortable wearing socks that are more “dandy”. Vertical stripes are more common in football, maybe to make the players seem fit, agile and a little aerodynamic. While rugby clubs were happy to retain the traditional jerseys that emphasised physique and power, football clubs probably wanted to differentiate themselves from the competing code.

There are some kits that could have done with a little styling. Wouldn’t Celtic and QPR’s hoops look better finished off with some matching socks? Or how about Brazil having some very vivid recolouring? But we don’t want everyone to have a hooped sock, otherwise their presence becomes “everyday”. The fact that not everyone likes or uses them makes them noticeable when a team runs out wearing something a little different. Long live the hooped sock, in all its glory!

Javier Tebas has a point about state-owned clubs, but is there an agenda?

JAVIER Tebas doesn’t like state-owned clubs, but here’s news for you, Señor, not many people do. They unsettle the playing field still further and although their wealth may level-up clubs alongside those who have been at the top for decades, their presence makes imbalances even worse. In other words, they might create greater competition for football’s hierarchy, clubs that feel their place is at the forefront of the game, but they cast-off so many who simply cannot compete anymore.

As president of La Liga, Tebas has to do the bidding of Real Madrid and Barcelona, among others. This is no easy task, you would assume for these clubs like being the Alpha males of European football and don’t enjoy seeing their position threatened. So Mr Tebas undoubtedly comes under pressure from all directions, but he will surely be aware that a successful Real Madrid does more for La Liga’s marketability than any amount of advertising spend. And ultimately, football is an industry where growth is mostly achieved “organically”, mergers are not really part of the equation. As long as clubs stay within their defined financial boundaries, they can go hell for leather in building their global footprint.

Tebas has launched a few clumsily-guided verbal attacks on Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, questioning many different aspects of their operations. It is not out of the question that some legal action may be coming in the opposite direction, but the simmering conflict between Tebas, PSG and Ligue 1 will do nobody any good, and it could even drive a wedge between top European leagues and reignite the European Super League project. Let’s not forget PSG were not among the clubs advocating the ESL and City were quick to withdraw when PR turned nasty. But Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid were all willing partners to the end. Tebas may actually be sitting on something of a powder keg – if European football becomes more divided, opportunists may decide the big clubs really do need their own party.

PSG were not advocating the ESL but Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid were all willing partners.

Tebas has, in the past, spoken negatively about the Premier League and its broadcasting fees. La Liga have made a lot of positive modifications to their own model in recent years, but it’s a fact their blue-riband clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona, are not as influential as they once were. They may still have enough clout to remain among the elite and Real’s Champions League victory this past season demonstrated they are always capable of winning the major prizes. And while they keep winning the trophy that is most associated with their history, the state-owned clubs have yet to lift it themselves. Of the “new money” clubs, only Chelsea have won the Champions League (in 2012 and 2021).

Are PSG and Manchester City ruining European football as Tebas suggests? Certainly they have artificially raised the bar in both England and France, although in the case of PSG, their extraordinary financial power does make them the ultimate flat-track-bullies. Tebas was very direct in his criticism, which comes after Real Madrid were gazumped by PSG’s huge new deal for Kylian Mbappé. “Listen, Nasser (Al-Khelaifi, PSG’s President), what you are doing is screwing football. It’s as dangerous as the Super League project.”

The news reports claim La Liga understands that the irregular financing of these clubs is carried out either through direct injection of cash or through sponsorship contracts that don’t make sense. As well as the Mbappé deal, Tebas cites the Manchester City signing of Erland Haaland. Interestingly, Real Madrid and Barcelona were both interested in Haaland at some stage. PSG, aware of the concerns around the Mbappé contract, commented: “The first person who needs lessons on conflicts of interest, financial management and market distortion is Javier Tebas.” Furthermore, Al-Khelaifi responded: “Tebas is afraid of Spanish top flight clubs being inferior to Ligue 1 in terms of quality.”

Ligue 1’s Vincent Labrune called Tebas’s outburst “disrespectful smears” and reminded him Real and Barca have broken the world transfer record six times and their salaries remain huge. Although Tebas may feel he is doing the right thing in “calling out” PSG and City, it also sounds like a case of sour grapes given the position some of his clubs have in football’s hierarchy.

That said, Tebas will have significant support from across the football world for being outspoken. Losing out on both Haaland and Mbappé wasn’t just a blow for the clubs willing to buy him, it was also a setback for La Liga, who are eager to replace the Ronaldo-Messi dynamic that has now gone. Over more than 10 years, these two players represented the face of La Liga. Mbappé and Haaland are the next generation, but they are now plying their well-compensated trade in France and England.

And there’s more to come. Newcastle United are likely to fall into this gilded category in the next year. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is behind the consortium that now owns the club, so in theory, they are the richest, or one of the top three richest, in the world. Tebas has already remarked the Saudi takeover was a case of “stealing football”.

The only way anyone can control this type of investor activity is through a type of governance that becomes the antithesis of the free market. Football is, all said and done, a competition and despite the claims the current set of uber-clubs make for an uneven playing field, the game has never been about a level field of play. The more money that is poured into football, the higher the stakes when investors are looking to buy a club. The obscenely-rich come in small numbers, so there’s no way the top 20 or 30 will all be bought by the type of owner PSG and Manchester City have. Levelling up would create the type of league that exists in the US, and that would not sit comfortably in Europe. Salary caps and transfer limits may well have the desired impact, but they, in themselves, would have drawbacks. However opponents of elite football couch it, there’s no easy way to change the status quo. Taking the very rich out of the competition and creating their own plaything may actually help the rest. The inauguration of a super league, perhaps? Whoops, we’re back where we started.