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.

Paris Saint-Germain’s excesses are just too great to be healthy

PARIS Saint-Germain look set to lose Kylian Mbappé this summer to Real Madrid, but the enormous wealth of the French champions means they will surely replace the young striker with another high profile signing. PSG’s financial advantages have brought them a multitude of top names and they currently have Neymar, Lionel Messi and Mbappé, but with their resources, PSG should be winning everything in France and challenging in Europe.

Their wage bill was € 500 million in 2020-21, around one third of the overall Ligue 1 total and more than € 350 million more than the nearest rival, Olympique Lyonnais, whose wages came to € 134 million. In 2020-21, PSG were beaten to the Ligue 1 title by Lille, whose player remuneration was around one sixth of the sum paid to the Parisians’ squad.

PSG’s finances make them the ultimate flat-track bully, but when they compete in the UEFA Champions League, they are found wanting almost every time. PSG’s problems stem from a lack of continuity around the management of the team and a culture of short-termism. Like Chelsea, their squad is a composition of various influences and they also have a penchant for attention-catching signings. Hence, the arrival of Messi and, for some peculiar reason, Sergio Ramos, both players past their prime, but undoubtedly enormously expensive.

The latest report from France’s DNCG (National Directorate of Control & Management), reveals French football was heavily impacted by the covid-19 pandemic in 2020-21. Only three clubs – Dijon, Reims and Saint-Étienne – made a profit and some of the losses were very eye-watering.

PSG’s loss, despite revenues of € 569 million (+2%), was € 225 million, the highest in France by some distance and the third highest in Europe after Barcelona (€ 550 million) and Inter Milan (€ 239 million). After PSG, whose losses climbed by € 100 million, the biggest loss in France was made by Lyon (-€ 109m), Marseille (-€ 76m) and Bordeaux (-€ 67m).

Like all French clubs, PSG’s matchday income was almost wiped out, but their bottom line figure was also influenced by a big reduction were in player trading which was down from a € 50 million profit to a near € 5 million loss. Profits on player sales are less important to PSG than rivals Monaco, Lyon and Lille, for obvious reasons, but there is clearly upside for the club if they choose to adopt a more commercial approach to transfers.

The club also incurred an increase in their already huge player costs. PSG’s wages were up by 21% to € 503 million in 2020-21, a wage-to-income of 88%.  According to L’Equipe, of the top 20 earners in French football, 18 are from PSG, with only Monaco’s Wissam Ben Yedder and Cesc Fabregas making up the list. The DNCG is keen to control the excesses of PSG, needless to say, and aims to stop any club having a wage bill of more than 70% of income. Another measure in progress is the restriction of debt, forbidding any club from having debt greater than share capital.

Broadcasting recovered in 2020-21 after the collapse of Ligue 1’s deal with Mediapro. Overall, TV accounts for 43% ( € 835 millon) of Ligue 1’s income and PSG generated over £ 200 million from this stream, a 54% rise on 2019-20. PSG have become very proficient commercially and their income totalled € 337 million. However, they are striving to push the envelope even further and hoped the acquisition of Messi would provide a significant boost.

Ligue 1’s total income was € 1.6 billion, but € 1.2 billion was paid out in wages and another € 119 million to agents and intermediaries. The league lost € 645 million, the total for Ligue 1 and 2 was a deficit of € 685 million.

PSG could be at the start of a new phase. The restrictions to be implemented will make it more difficult for the club to leverage its financial power and at some point, they will have to look at the way they build their teams. There’s also a good chance manager Mauricio Pochettino will move on and, with Mbappé and Ángel Di María certainly leaving, along with the possible departure of Neymar, times may be changing in Paris.

At the same time, France needs greater competition to improve the overall quality of Ligue 1. The country produces very good players on a regular basis, the national team are world champions and UEFA Nations League winners, but PSG are not always pushed enough. They’re still waiting for that first Champions League title, after all.

PSG win the clash of a billion euros against Real Madrid

IT DOES seem as though every major football match has so many outcomes hanging on the result and there is no such thing as a completely dead rubber any more. Not that Paris Saint-Germain against Real Madrid is ever likely to be given that tag, but with all games scrutinised so forensically, there are several narratives to be extracted from every fixture. 

This UEFA Champions League last 16 first leg tie was settled by one of the most talked-about players in world football, Kylian Mbappé, whose contract expires in June 2022. Naturally, the nerves are jangling in Paris as the club works to either secure him for a longer term or let their talisman go, possibly to Real Madrid.

Much could depend on the Champions League, for PSG are yearning to lift the one trophy that has eluded them. Mbappé’s future is one outcome that may be determined by how close the French champions go towards winning the Champions League, but equally, coach Mauricio Pochettino’s job may be under threat if PSG fail to get beyond Real. He has a year remaining on his contract, but if PSG fall again, he may not get the chance to see it out. And then there’s Lionel Messi, will he hang around if he doesn’t get another stab at the prize he last caressed in 2015? As for Real Madrid, a club that doesn’t get stage fright when the Champions League final phase comes around, they could use the competition to lure Mbappé to the Bernabéu. 

The two teams’ combined starting elevens in the Parc des Princes had cost over € 1 billion and there was another € 600 million among the substitutes. If ever there was a single match that summed up the opulence of the modern football industry, PSG v Real was one such contest. Neymar, who has just turned 30, was in the dugout, bleached hair ensuring the cameras would not miss him, while Real’s misfits, Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard, who between them cost € 200 million, were warming the visitors’ bench. Neymar is no longer the future at PSG, the man is definitely Mbappé.

Both teams, inevitably, went into the match as leaders of their respective leagues: PSG were 13 points clear of second-placed Marseille and had lost just once; Real, beaten twice, were four ahead of Sevilla in a La Liga campaign that doesn’t have Barcelona and Atlético firing on all cylinders. While PSG do not need to spend much to maintain their superiority at home, they will and it is just a matter of time before they attract more of the world’s top players. Real still have the problem of an ageing squad, even though former captain Sergio Ramos, left last summer, moving to, of all clubs, PSG.

Just why Ramos, aside from financial reasons, moved to PSG is something of a mystery and he has played just half a dozen games since joining them, due to a series of injuries. He was denied the chance to play against his old club and sat in the stand, doubtless wishing he was in the midst of the action, applying his ultra-professional trickery to the occasion.

Most of the activity was in the Real Madrid half as PSG laid siege on their goal. Despite the pressure (PSG had almost 70% of possession for most of the first half), there were few genuine goalscoring opportunities. Mbappé managed to squirm clear of the ever-attentive Dani Carvajal, but the angle was difficult and his shot lacked power, allowing Thibaut Courtois to block the way.

The second half opened up and Mbappé finished a flowing move with a right-foot shot that was well handled by Courtois and then Messi, eager to get in on the act, struck a first time curling shot that the Belgian keeper had little difficulty stopping. 

The same two players were involved in the talking point of the first hour or so of the game, with the little Argentinian spurning the chance to give PSG the lead from the penalty spot. Mbappé, who else?, unnerved the Real defence with a run into the area and Caravajal upended him. Messi shot to Courtois’ left, but he judged the spot kick perfectly.

PSG continued to scurry around anxiously, and although Neymar’s arrival, replacing Ángel Di Maria,  added some wizardry, it looked as though Real were going to succeed in “doing a job” on their hosts. As the clock ran into added time, Neymar reminded the crowd why he was the natural heir to Brazilian greats of the past, cheekily backheeling to Mbappé who then forced his way between Lucas Vázquez and Éder Militão, slotting the ball through Courtois’ legs at just the right moment. No wonder the Real players pounded the turf, frustrated they had been denied a draw after soaking-up all that PSG could throw at them.

PSG deserved it, they had conjured up 20 shots to Real’s three, had almost 60% of the ball and, generally, tried to play enterprising football, while Europe’s most successful club was happy to opt for an old-fashioned away performance. It was lacking in goals, true, but it was an interesting 90 minutes and an even more compelling period of supplementary time. The second leg will be just as riveting.