On February 14, 2017, FC Barcelona left the city of Paris with their tails tucked between their legs, after a 4-0 drubbing. Utterly humiliated by the capital team, Paris Saint Germain, Barça left France with their season in tatters. They lagged behind the leaders of La Liga and the team’s biggest rival, Real Madrid, and were now facing elimination in the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League for the first time since the 2007/08 season. There was little hope for the returning leg. No team in the history of the competition had ever recovered from a 4-0 loss. Critics from across the world analyzed the game, and gave their take on the comeback: impossible, was the verdict.
A core group of fans believed. They rallied behind their beloved players, and ‘Remuntada’, Catalan for comeback, became the word for hope. And somewhere along the way, the players began to believe as well: especially one Neymar Jr. He posted a quote on Instagram and Twitter, stating: “As long as there is a 1 percent chance, we will have 99% belief”. And so, with the words spoken from their beloved number 11, Barça fans believed. Then came the day, March 8th 2017. Camp Nou was filled to the brim, and the teams lined up. Barcelona needed five goals to win, and six goals if PSG scored; both very difficult tasks. Yet, after an early goal by Luis Suarez, an own goal by Layvin Kurzawa and a penalty easily tucked away by Lionel Messi, Barça seemed to be heading towards the impossible. A goal by Edinson Cavani knocked their progress, and with PSG having one goal back, Barca now needed six goals to win on aggregate. 30 minutes remained still, but three goals seemed unlikely. As time ran out, so did hope. That was until the young Brazilian, Neymar, stepped up. With three minutes of regular time remaining, the left winger produced an outstanding goal from a dangerous free kick. He then stepped up for a penalty in the 90th minute to draw Barça level. Finally, with stoppage time running out, Neymar provided a sublime pass for Sergi Roberto, to score the sixth goal of the game. And just like that, the Remuntada was complete. The impossible was done and Camp Nou erupted. The players celebrated in awe, while PSG were stunned; baffled at how they had surrendered a four-goal lead. And while Lionel Messi was usually the first name to sing praises for, tonight, a different man had stepped up in the time of need for Barcelona. The man whom Barça fans had put their faith in since he had arrived, and christened the heir of Messi. It was Neymar, who had led the team to this comeback. He was now their very own.
Four months later, and only a Copa Del Rey trophy in hand after a tough season, the love story between Neymar and Barcelona has grown somewhat cold. Over the last two weeks, a lot of speculation has been made over a possible transfer for Neymar to PSG. On the morning of July 18, Brazilian journalist Marcelo Bechler made what seemed to be an outlandish claim (at the time). He stated that reports from Paris and close friends of Neymar had revealed that the Parisian club would pay the astronomical release clause in Neymar’s contract, and sign the player. While many dismissed the rumor because the fee being mentioned was very large (£196 million or 222 million euros), the value of this transaction would shatter the current world record fee paid for Paul Pogba last summer by Manchester United (which was 100 million euros and incredible in its own right). But, within the last two weeks, several developments and events have turned this potential transfer into a likely possibility.
Within the next few days, Paris Saint Germain should have the world’s greatest talent within their ranks, and Barcelona will be 222 million euros richer. But, the real question arises as to why Neymar would leave Barcelona. He would be leaving a team in which he’s settled, playing with arguably the best player in the world in Lionel Messi, and part of a core group of players poised to compete for every trophy every season. Last year, Kevin Durant was ridiculed for joining the Warriors: a team that his own Oklahoma City side had relinquished a 3-1 lead to in the Western Conference Finals. Many criticized his attitude, and while the decision betrayed the team that had given him so much, it made sense on a sporting level. By the end of the 2016/17 season, Durant was the NBA Finals’ MVP, and had a ring to his name. In Neymar’s case, it seems he’s taking the opposite path. He’s poised to join a team that he himself embarrassed, and a team that does not seem to be able to consistently compete against other European Giants.
Prior to joining Barcelona in 2013, Neymar was the biggest sensation and young talent in the world. He was touted as the next best, hailed by legends like Pele, and clubs all around Europe were chasing his signature. When Barça won that signature, he came to the club ready to learn and work in tandem with Messi. He said all of the right things, and after a somewhat rocky start, was firing on all cylinders. He was instrumental in the treble that Barça won in 2015, scoring 23 times in the league, and 10 times in the Champions League, with most of those goals coming in the knockout stages, and one in the final. He then got a chance to carry the team in the fall of 2015 when Messi was injured for a couple of months. Neymar lifted the team at that time with his best performance coming in the Santiago Bernabeu, where Barcelona demolished Real Madrid on their own turf. He would play a big part in helping his team win a second domestic double. And even in a less-than-stellar season for Barça, Neymar produced moments of magic, such as in the ‘Remuntada’. Yet, it feels as though Neymar desires something more. All of the greatest athletes have egos. And to be the best, they must believe in their own abilities. While Neymar has played the role of a sidekick very well, he finds himself at a crossroads. His ambition remains to be the best, and win the Balon d’Or, something he believes he cannot do with Messi in his team.
Yet, joining PSG does seem slightly inadvisable. While he will be joining up with several fellow countrymen such as Dani Alves, Thiago Silva and Marquinhos, Neymar would also be joining a team that still seems to struggle to perform at the highest level: on the international stage. His signing would definitely provide the team with a lift in morale. After all, Paris would be securing the world’s best after Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and would also be weakening a tough opponent in the process. Neymar could also become Paris’s own version of these two players, and becoming a legend is something that he has always desired. But, beneath the surface, it feels as though this decision is one made in haste. Staying at Barça would instead be a more positive move for the young Brazilian. Yes, Lionel Messi is and will be top dog, but the Argentine star has never shied away from letting Neymar have the spotlight. Instead of showing fear of being in the shadow of his teammate, Neymar should use the genius of “La Pulga” to his advantage. Luis Suarez benefited from the help of Lionel Messi, scoring 40 times in La Liga, as Barça stormed their way to the league title. Eventually, Neymar would take over, as Messi is now 30 years old. While Messi will continue to play for years, time will take a toll, and his influence will wane slightly. And by then, Neymar will be able to take over the team.
Neymar’s move, in the end, comes at great risk and great reward for all parties. Neymar will move to a team that he can make his own and take to the next level. Paris will have one of the best current players, and the best player of the future. Barcelona, while losing an important cog in their system, will have an influx in funds to fix what many consider to be a broken midfield – so long as they don’t blow it all on a Neymar replacement like Mbappe or Griezmann. As for Neymar, he may want to reconsider his options. His move to PSG may or may not work out. He could become a Messi-like figure for Paris. However, he may also end up like his own idol, Robinho, who after joining Real Madrid, never had the same success as he had in Brazil and played for several clubs across Europe without achieving anything. Neymar has truly made a huge decision in moving, but let’s just hope that it helps him be at his best, for he is the face of football.