The prince that never was

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It’s mind-boggling, really. Neymar Jr played a season-defining, perhaps even a career-defining match against PSG when the Parisians collapsed at the Camp Nou in the famous Remuntada. PSG were left embarrassed, Barcelona jubilant. A few months later, Neymar has just about joined PSG, and social media is filled with questions about his motivations. Is it money? Individual glory? Friends? How? What? Why?

What makes things strange is that Neymar signed a renewal less than a year ago. What has changed since then? Barcelona, of course, had a somewhat disappointing season despite the heroics against PSG. But as far as winning titles go, it’s still a safer bet than PSG. If you’re looking for a Champions League, anyway.

Was it pressure from his entourage? It was reportedly Neymar Sr. who approached PSG and signed a pre-deal with them, much like he signed a pre-deal with Barcelona back in the day. Both Neymar Jr. and Sr. make a lot of money from the transfer. But it can’t be that a 25-year-old man changes clubs and moves to a different city just because his dad says so, and it can’t be that he’s only motivated by money if he originally rejected a financially superior offer from Real Madrid to join Barcelona.

Make no mistake, money has surely been a big factor, perhaps the biggest individual one. In PSG, Neymar will reportedly make the kind of salary that only Messi makes in Barcelona. Chances are there’s a hefty signing bonus as well. With Neymar Sr. pulling the strings behind the scenes, it’s a big pay-day for the entire family. And maybe, looking back to the drama that has surrounded Neymar ever since he was a teenager with every European giant battling for his signature, and remembering the shady back-alley deals that Barcelona had to pull to sign him, the circus we’re witnessing now shouldn’t surprise us.

However, it’s worth entertaining the uncomfortable thought that maybe, just maybe, money wasn’t the only reason for Neymar’s decision, as big a factor as it might have been.

Part of it might be the MSN. The three South Americans, beloved by Barcelona fans, feared by opponents. While Messi and Suarez clearly enjoy their friendship to the fullest both on and off the pitch, Neymar might just be different. He’s always gotten on well with the two, but undeniably has a different lifestyle, partly due to his age, and perhaps feels like an outsider in the trio. Some hate him for it, but people aren’t all carbon-copies of each other. Not everyone can be as boring as Messi.

And perhaps he feels like it’s his time to seek individual recognition, instead of being seen only as a part of a trio. PSG will give him his own team, which, realistically, he won’t have at Barcelona as long as Messi is around, and Messi just signed a renewal.

But then, it’s not as if Neymar didn’t know that Messi was a part of the deal when he came in. He’s the biggest Messi fanboy on the planet and knew that the Argentine wasn’t going anywhere. So if it’s Messi’s shadow that pushed him away, one must question his foresight. The greatest player of all time was always going to cast a shadow, no matter how great the pair’s friendship was. And it’s also undeniable that having Messi by his side helped Neymar grow into the player he is today, and on a more practical level, gave him more space than he would have in a team without Messi. He could have been as great as he was ever going to be in Barcelona, by Messi’s side, and in a few years, without Messi. He could have inherited the crown from Messi, become the face of the club, and a legend at the Camp Nou. But he chose something else, and that’s his right. Maybe that’s not what he wanted in the first place. Maybe Barcelona was always going to be just a short stop in his career.

Undoubtedly, of course, a new club will offer Neymar the chance to be the star player, not just a star player. If that means more to him than the privilege and honor of wearing blaugrana, he’s better off somewhere else, and Barcelona is better off with someone else. Whether PSG – a club with a short history when compared to European elite, and with a significantly inferior global following – will give Neymar the glory he desires remains to be seen. And while it might seem like a strange decisions from many points of view, the only point of view that matters is that PSG might be the only club in the world who can invest close to €500M in one player, release clause, bonuses and salary combined. A player looked for alternatives, a club slapped the money on the table and opened its doors. Done.

That might seem simple, but what it all means for Barcelona is far more complex. Neymar was supposed to be Messi’s heir, he was supposed to be the building-block of the future. And arguably, when he’s at his best, we’re talking about the second best player in the world. Losing him hurts the sporting project, there’s no denying it. Losing him also hurts the club psychologically. Big clubs don’t let go of their big players. Or if they do, they want to do it on their own terms. Barcelona, in this case, had no say. All they could do was wait for the decision, and ultimately were left second best in the eyes of their own player. It’s a big blow, and it should hurt.

On a more practical level, signing an immediate replacement is nearly impossible, even with the 220 million euros in the bank. With that much money, the pressure to get it right is immense. And this time, getting it right might even be more important than ever. Now, for the first time in years, we’re talking about starting to build a team around a young core that will enter its prime when Messi might be exiting the scene. Sign wisely now, and you can repair a lot of the damage done by Neymar’s departure, and already begin to prepare for a time without Messi. Sign poorly, and the drop after the Messi-era will feel like a thousand miles.

But what does signing wisely mean under these circumstances? There’s talk of Coutinho, who could play on the left, but who would primarily be signed as a midfielder. A star-signing that would probably be popular in Catalunya. But the question is, if Barcelona want a midfielder who can be excused from many defensive responsibilities due to his abilities in the final third, surely that player should be Messi. Surely the new core should be built around Messi’s strengths as a playmaker, assuming that Messi will be around for another 3-5 years.

With that logic, Barcelona’s main priorities should be on the wings. Messi, in all likelihood, won’t be a full-time winger anymore, and with Neymar gone, the left wing is empty too. Strengthening the wings, then, becomes a very immediate issue that needs to be addressed, and with that in mind, eyes turn to Ousmane Dembele and Kylian Mbappe. The former is versatile enough to play on both sides, allowing for flexibility and variations. The latter is primarily a left-sided player, but his exceptional ability in front of goal could also help him slot into Luis Suarez’s shoes in a few years.

Mbappe and Dembele are 18 and 20 years old respectively, so to expect Neymar-esque performance from them straight away would be unfair and unrealistic. The team would need a new adaptation period. But if there’s a silver lining to Neymar’s departure, it’s precisely this: It brings in an unexpected pile of money that allows for the club to kick-start the much needed renovation of the squad. If it means putting €100M or more on both Mbappé and Dembele, the club and fans might just thank themselves five years down the line when Messi and Suarez are gone, or at least in the final parts of their careers. It’s then when we’ll need players ready to take the center-stage.

What about the midfielder, then? Frankly, the market is not littered with great options. And while Barcelona desperately need to search for new solutions in this area, a player should be signed only if he has immediate starting quality, and can be around for the long term. Otherwise, the club risks spending some 40-50 millions on a player whose minutes could just as well be given to, say, Carles Aleña. In other words, going crazy just because you have the money will likely be the most destructive option of all, because it doesn’t help with short-term success, and potentially jeopardizes the long-term future of young players waiting for their turn.

All of this, of course, is easy in theory. €150M for Mbappé, €100M for Dembele, the rest of the money from the budget and the sales for some world-class midfielder somewhere. If only it was as simple as that. Mbappé seems closer to Madrid than Barcelona, Dortmund is not overly keen on negotiating for Dembele, and a world-class midfielder is not that easy to find in a world where signing Verratti is starting to look more and more like a pipedream.

So while there is life without Neymar, his departure amplifies the need to revamp the squad, and certainly makes it more urgent. And urgency is not necessarily a great thing in the transfer market, when one has to make considered and intelligent decisions. Splashing the cash everywhere just because you have it won’t do anyone any good.

Losing Neymar, clearly, doesn’t feel great, because he came to Barcelona as a boy and leaves as a man who is just about to enter his prime. However, just like any other player, Neymar is only valuable to Barcelona if he feels the colors and wants to be a part of the club. Anyone who doesn’t, we’re better off without, no matter how great they are. Now it’s up to the club to make the most out of a difficult and uncomfortable situation, and use the setback as a springboard for a bright future.

One comment

  1. Honestly, this is the best article I read on the web on this situation, from a Barca perspective. congrats.

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