“The players are going to have to assume their responsibilities even more than before,” Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi began. “It has to be completely different. They are not here to have fun. And if they don’t agree with this point of view, the doors are open. Ciao! I no longer want to have superstar behaviour.”
The PSG president could have been talking directly about Brazilian superstar Neymar when he laid down the law to his over-paid and under-performing ensemble earlier this week. Yet he wasn’t.
Two seasons into the Neymar project and PSG have a pair of Champions League last-16 ties to show for their world-record £198million investment in a player who, at the time, was viewed as the world’s third best behind Barcelona team-mate Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, then of Real Madrid.
Ligue 1 champions in six of the last seven seasons, only failing to make it seven in a row thanks to Monaco‘s improbable win in 2016/17 when a once-in-a-generation side led by Kylian Mbappé stunned everyone. Les Parisiens responded by paying £166million to bring the Parisian forward ‘home’ in the same summer they snared Neymar.
Their dominance extends to the cups where they had won the Coupe de France, Coupe de la Ligue and Trophèe des Campeones in three straight seasons. In 2018/19, though, Thomas Tuchel’s side only managed the double, going out of Coupe de la Ligue in the quarters and losing the final of the Coupe de France to stark outsiders Rennes.
None of which matters. Even remotely. Whatever their ulterior motives, when Qatar Sports Investment (QSI) took over in 2012 they did so with the aim of becoming one of Europe’s elite. That means winning the Champions League. Repeatedly.
Speaking after PSG took the Ligue 1 title back from Monaco with a 7-1 win over Les Monegasques in 2018, Al-Khelaifi said: “We have done a lot of positive things this season. We are champions for the seventh time, the fifth for me. It’s really something beautiful, thank you to everyone. Of course, everyone knows, our big goal is the Champions League.”
Sweeping all before them domestically will not cut it. In lifting the trophy PSG crave, Liverpool have shown there is more to winning than having star names. The Reds do not lack star quality – think Alisson, Virgil van Dijk and Mohamed Salah – but Jürgen Klopp has cultivated a proper team.
When Real Madrid sold Claude Makélélé in the same summer they signed David Beckham from Manchester United, Zinedine Zidane quipped: “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?”
That has been PSG’s recruitment strategy in the QSI era, placing star names ahead of a team ethos and spirit. The horrendous imbalance in Tuchel’s squad is the upshot of this.
There is still not a proper defensive midfielder at the Parc des Princes and the German coach was forced to play centre-back Marquinhos in midfield for much of last season. Even January addition Leandro Paredes was a compromise with PSG bound by Financial Fair Play (FFP) restrictions.
As things stand, Les Parisiens have a senior outfield roster of 17 players. And one of those, Adrien Rabiot, a player around which the midfield could and should have been built, will leave on a free transfer this summer after spectacularly falling out with the club during contract negotiations.
Talk surrounding Neymar’s future has been virtually non-stop during his time in Paris. On paper at least the Brazilian has been an unqualified success. He has averaged more goals and assists than former Barça team-mate Messi, the man whose shadow he tried to escape in leaving the Camp Nou in 2017.
Yet his time in the French capital has been blighted by injury (missing 47 games in two seasons), controversy (accusations of disrespecting opponents, penalty tantrums and a clear lack of dedication to the cause) and persistent rumours of a return to Spain.
Despite his evident worth on the field (51 goals and 29 assists in all competitions) now is the time to cash in. Having fallen behind rivals Barcelona, Real Madrid are desperate to reclaim top spot domestically and continentally and have already spent almost £300million this summer on Eden Hazard, Luka Jović, Ferland Mendy, Rodrygo and Éder Militão. But they are not done yet and a deal for Neymar would prove irresistible to president Florentino Pérez who has never passed up the opportunity to declare his admiration for the PSG forward.
Speaking after Zidane was re-appointed as coach in March, Pérez said: “Zidane is French, so with Mbappé he could do something, no? Now what we need to do is finish the season well and prepare for next year.”
Then asked which of Neymar or Mbappé he would sign, Pèrez replied: “I’d take them both.”
Earlier this year Spanish newspaper AS reported that Real would offer PSG £279.9million to sign Neymar while Sport claimed Los Blancos would pay the forward £700,000 a week (£38.3million a year).
If not Real, then Barça is another potential destination. El Mundo claims Messi has asked president Josep Maria Bartomeu to bring Neymar back to the Catalan club.
There’s clearly a market for Neymar and PSG president Al-Khelaifi issued a thinly veiled ultimatum to the forward when speaking to France Football this week. “I want players willing to give everything to defend the honour of the jersey and to join the club project,” he said.
“Those who do not want that, or do not understand, we will meet and we will talk to each other. There are of course contracts to be respected, but the priority now is total membership of our project.
“Nobody forced him to sign here. Nobody pushed him. He came knowingly to join a project.”
But what would PSG gain from selling the world’s most expensive player?
For a start, the cash raised would alleviate their FFP concerns. It would also give coach Tuchel and new sporting director Leonardo the funds to patch up the numerous holes in a squad which has been decimated by necessary sales in order to attempt to avoid FFP sanctions by UEFA. With so much money tied up in Neymar and Mbappé, PSG have cut corners elsewhere, forcing Tuchel to field make-do-and-mend sides in the final weeks of the season.
Furthermore, they do not need both; this town ain’t big enough for the two of them. At 20, Mbappé is younger and a bigger prospect. He is a boyhood PSG supporter and, as a Parisian, has a far great affinity with the city and his public.
He can be the club’s franchise figure, a leader on and off the field, for the next decade. But with Neymar on the books, it becomes difficult diplomatically to invest in one over the other.
There is no doubting Neymar’s ability. The numbers and his trophy haul speak for themselves. But he has become a sideshow at the Parc des Princes and, in the city of love, this relationship is on the rocks. The best thing for all parties would be to end it this summer.