For a moment in early August 2017, it looked as if the skies over Barcelona were going to cave in.
Paris Saint-Germain had just nicked Neymar Jr. from FC Barcelona's ranks for a sum ($263 million) that more than doubled the previous world-record transfer fee. The city of Barcelona was in shock at what Spanish sports newspaper Marca described on its front page as "the transfer that changed the history of football."
The Catalan paper Diario Sport expressed its feelings more bitterly with a headline that spat: "Good riddance!"
Barca, who have won four Champions League titles during Lionel Messi's reign, accumulate star players. To lose Neymar—the player earmarked to assume Messi's mantle in a few years' time—in such a bold swoop was inexplicable.
The fact that Real Madrid were in the midst of the most decorated year in their history compounded matters. A couple of weeks later, Barca went down 5-1 to their ancient rivals over two legs in the Spanish Super Cup final, which looked ominous for the season ahead.
Several months on, against the backdrop of Real Madrid's shambolic domestic season, Barca are flying—they are top of the La Liga table, have the Copa del Rey final in April and are favourites to progress against Chelsea, whom they face at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night in the Champions League knockout stages.
It seems preposterous, but it could be argued that Barcelona are stronger without Neymar, who scored more than a century of goals during four seasons with the club, per Opta (h/t FourFourTwo magazine).
A few weeks ago, Messi conceded as much in an interview with World Soccer magazine (h/t Goal), maintaining the team is "more balanced" since Neymar's departure.
Coach Ernesto Valverde has shifted the access of the team—now that the vaunted Messi-Suarez-Neymar trident up front has been dismantled—back towards midfield. Jordi Alba, who lost his starting place last season, is thriving again in the space vacated by Neymar on the left flank.
"Barcelona is better without Neymar," says Diego Torres, a journalist with El Pais. "It's a paradox because the team is stronger with a player on the team instead who is worse. With Philippe Coutinho or Ousmane Dembele—players who were bought in his place but are inferior—the team is better fundamentally because Neymar looks at football as a business, not as a sport, which goes against all the feelings of solidarity, commitment, togetherness and responsibility that is essential for the functioning of a team.
"He's a very intelligent guy with great self-confidence. He's narcissistic with an urge to release himself from the obligations related to the professional life—to eat properly, not to drink, to sleep well, the obligation to train every day at a high level, to assume the responsibility to be available to play every game. Neymar wants to avoid this.
"Also professional football is very demanding. It's not easy to endure the pressure. Neymar has been a professional since he was 14 years old. He has spent a lot of time playing at this level. I don't think he has a vocation to play into his thirties. For me, the objective of Neymar is to make as much money with the least responsibility. It's not bad for him to think this way if there are people prepared to pay him for it."
Joaquim Piera, a Catalan journalist for Diario Sport, mentions a secret meeting Neymar had with his father, his agent Wagner Ribeiro and Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the president of Paris Saint-Germain, aboard the Qatari businessman's yacht in Ibiza in July 2016, which was followed up by a second meeting in Sao Paulo, according to Marca.
"It was a tremendous deception," says Piera. "They met in a moment when Neymar was negotiating his renewal with Barcelona. It was improper behaviour for a crack. I couldn't, for example, imagine Cristiano Ronaldo in the yacht of any other president who is not Real Madrid's one."
Torres references a league game that Neymar missed last season when the league title was in the balance. It was a week that encapsulated his enigma.
In the historic, midweek comeback against Paris Saint-Germain at the Camp Nou in the Champions League last-16 second leg, Neymar was unstoppable—scoring two and providing an assist in a seven-minute whirlwind that concluded the match, 6-1, in Barca's favour.
Then he cried off—citing an alleged abductor muscle injury—for that weekend's trip to A Coruna.
The Catalan press smelled a rat. Diario Sport noted how for two years in a row—in March 2015 and March 2016—he was conveniently suspended for the league matches that coincided with his younger sister Rafaella Beckran's birthday, facilitating his release by the club to return to Sao Paulo for her birthday parties.
For a third year running, he was again at his sister's side as she celebrated her 21st birthday in Barcelona. Mundo Deportivo reproduced Instagram pictures from her party the day after; later that evening, Barca lost 2-1 to Deportivo La Coruna. The three points Barca squandered against a team mired in a relegation battle were the difference between winning and losing that season's league title.
"Without Neymar, a dressing room is more governable for whatever trainer coaches the team," Piera says. "The type of leadership that Neymar exercises in the dressing room is not positive for the group because of the privileges he obtains. The Barcelona dressing room is more peaceful without him.
"All of the anxiety that Neymar creates with his need to be prominent on social media didn't lead to calmness around the club. The polemics of Gerard Pique on social media, for example, tie in with a lot of the feelings of Barcelona's fans and the philosophy of Catalan people. All of the celebrity noise that Neymar generates is only created to serve his ego."
Piera—who has been living in Sao Paulo since 2003, the year Neymar joined the youth academy at Santos—says that Neymar is a rare case in the history of Brazilian "super-cracks" because of the circumstances of his standing at Santos.
"He was a god in Santos," he says. "He could act on a whim because he was practically responsible for 25 percent of the earnings at the club."
When Neymar graduated to the Brazil national team in August 2010, aged only 18, he arrived in a vacuum after the country's poor showing in that year's World Cup finals in South Africa. He had no mentors on the team. Almost immediately, he became the team's reference, adorning the cover of Time magazine a year before the country hosted the 2014 World Cup.
Neymar didn't find a mentor at Barcelona either when he joined in 2013. Messi, who had already won four Ballon d'Or awards by then, was too introverted to provide that role, although Piera argues that Neymar already reckoned himself to be a better footballer than Messi, which is part of the belief or ambition that propelled Neymar to leave the club last summer for PSG, where he has become the club's totem.
"People consider Neymar to be a genius at football, the heir apparent of Cristiano and Messi. He has all the conditions, the qualities to be this kind of important player, but the problem is his character," says Torres.
There have been several wayward South American geniuses that have played with Barcelona during the club's recent history. They all differ in one key aspect to Neymar—they all had a body of work to their names before they veered off course.
"There have been many of them—footballers with a poetic spirit, bohemian, undisciplined, a bit crazy, wicked," Torres says. "Ronaldinho, Ronaldo Nazario, Diego Maradona. All of them are comparable—malditos, flawed geniuses who don't respect everyday norms. They were a bit dissolute, but first of all they were good professionals.
"Maradona in Barcelona always had respect for training, for the coach, for his team-mates, for the codes that permitted the team to function well. Ronaldinho was well conformed. Ronaldo Nazario was a very disciplined footballer that played in two World Cup finals. He played in Italy with Inter where it is very disciplined; and he won Ballons d'Or and a World Cup.
"They all had lives that were more or less organised; then towards the end of their careers—after they achieved big things—they relaxed their professional habits. But when they were 25, 26 years of age, they were focused on their sporting objectives."
Neymar turned 26 on February 5, 2018. He may well crown his career in the summer by leading Brazil to a World Cup win. With PSG, though, he has his work cut out to prevent the club failing again to trouble the final rounds of the Champions League, and he is in danger of squandering the best years of his career on a project that has a whiff of disarray and decadence about it.
Neymar's agent, Ribeiro, was quoted last week in an article in El Pais by Torres—which gives an insight into the unruly lifestyle the player leads in the French capital, including details of his birthday party, which carried on for a few days—with a telling comment.
He was asked about the prospects of his player's moving to Real Madrid next season, which, for Ribeiro, dredged up memories of Neymar's time at Barcelona. "No way! He already knows how big clubs are. Where will they allow him to live as he lives in Paris?"
Piera says a comparison with Coutinho, Neymar's team-mate on Brazil national teams since the pair were teenagers, is instructive: "Coutinho said a great phrase at his presentation. He was asked: 'Why did you leave Liverpool to come to Barca?' He responded: 'Barca is Barca.' It's a huge slogan—'Barca is Barca'. That intangible thing—the importance of the club, its history—brought Coutinho to Barcelona. It's something Neymar didn't understand and is fundamental in understanding his departure from the club."
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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