The Neymar Gambit

After weeks of speculation, news broke 40 minutes as of the  time of writing this piece on BBC Sport that the Neymar Jr. transfer from FC Barcelona to Paris St. Germain was officially done. And not just done, it was sealed for a world record 200 million pounds. The way I look at it, this transfer was not just about Neymar “”looking for new challenges” or about the money, as one of my college juniors put it in a WhatsApp status.

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There are a lot of reasons behind this move to the French capital and while I may or may not be right about some of them, there was definitely more motivation for Neymar to leave than to stay in Catalonia.

The Second Fiddle

Lionel Messi is thirty and along with Real Madri star Cristiano Ronaldo, he forms the two best attackers that the world has seen. Neymar Jr. is twenty five, entering the peak of his career and is about to take part in Russia 2018 as the face of the Brazilian national team – a team that, with the likes of Philippe Coutinho and Thiago Silva among others is one of the favourites to win the World Cup in Moscow next summer.

When Neymar joined from Santos FC four years ago, he was going to be playing under Messi and later, along with Uruguayan Luis Suarez, formed the deadliest three strikers in club football. It was a line-up so deadly that it could gloss over some of the failures behind them in midfield and defence. But for how long would someone, who is at a crucial juncture in his footballing career, be okay with playing queen to the king?

When Neymar joined, he was an understudy. Now, he has had four years of experience playing with the best players and against the best opponents in Europe. And this past season in particular was one where Neymar truly blossomed as a goalscorer. One could even call it the season he graduated from being the understudy to something bigger.

But not everybody felt that way. Certainly not the Barcelona fans to whom Messi was a demi-god, especially after Barcelona’s remarkable comeback against Paris St. Germain in the Champions League, when this picture went viral.

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Incidentally, although hailed for the comeback, Neymar was the architect of the win. And this photo only seemed to underline the fact that at Barcelona, Neymar could never be regarded on the same platform as Lionel Messi, even though he is one of the best players in the world. The feeling was that as long as Messi was at the club, Neymar won’t be at his level – in terms of ability or image.

Being The Man

At Barcelona, Neymar was an understudy – as mentioned before. He was but a mere addendum to what Messi brought to the table. A key addendum but an addendum nonetheless. He was never going to be the go-to guy. At least not in the near future. When Messi runs out his current contract, he will be 34 and Neymar will be 29. At that stage, he doesn’t have many years left to lead the side.

Right now, the way Barcelona is set up, things go according to the way Lionel Messi wants it to go. Neymar is thus shunted out to the left wing – a position he is good at but a position he wouldn’t prefer playing in given a choice. And he is reminded of that choice whenever he is on international duty with Brazil, playing as a center-forward.

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At PSG, he has the chance to dictate the way his team plays. He is a huge upgrade on an ageing Edinson Cavani and with players of the calibre of Marco Veratti behind him, he will be able to ensure very good service to enable him to flourish in the center-forward position. PSG is his club and now he has a chance to be the man. This was something Barcelona could not offer him.

Being the man is a new challenge and it is a true test of a player’s calibre. It has the ability to make legends or prove that you are nothing more than a great player but not a great leader. It is a personal level of accomplishment that takes incredible will, sacrifice and effort. It is the ability to will your team to heights almost single-handedly and only the truly great ones can do that. It is a test that many have taken but few have succeeded in.

Just ask Russell Westbrook of the NBA.

The Future

There’s less than a year before the World Cup kicks off in Russia 2018 and Brazil – with the likes of Coutinho and Neymar among their ranks – will be one of the favourites to win the title. Neymar has already had a taste of what it is like to lead the national team to glory – winning the nation’s first ever Olympic gold medal in men’s football at Rio De Janiero. Now, he is going to lead the side – at the prime of his career- into the World Cup. He is the face of the national team and the biggest talent to emerge since the 2002 World Cup players like Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. He is Brazilian football itself.

And that brings a pressure of its own. It is a pressure he will never face if he stays at Barcelona. But at PSG, like I said before, he is the man. From being one of the guys at Barca to being the man at PSG, it is a huge transition. Is he cut out for it? Maybe. He has proven a fairly capable leader with Brazil and was able to handle expectations till his injury against Colombia at the last World Cup. At PSG, he has the expectations of a whole city on his shoulders. His leadership qualities over a season will be scrutinised heavily, especially given his huge transfer fee and how he handles the criticism, the pressure, the expectations and much more will not only play a key part in PSG’s season but also in Brazil’s World Cup chances.

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Another key aspect of his move is his personal future. He has already finished in the top three in the Ballon D’Or along with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. But like I mentioned earlier, it all comes down to being the man. At Barcelona, he is always going to be second fiddle. At PSG, if he can lead them to a good Champions League campaign – maybe even win the Champions League given that they have been a force to reckon with in recent years – he will give himself a good shot at winning the Ballon D’Or. And these chances will only increase if he spearheads Brazil’s challenge at the World Cup and they do well.

As for league titles, PSG is going to win a lot of league titles for sure. They have won three of the last four times and PSG’s dominance of the league won’t be abated anytime soon. And as interested as Neymar is in winning the league, his time at PSG will bear just one question.

Can he get them their maiden Champions League?

The European stage is a stage that can help him achieve that level of greatness at PSG that Messi has achieved at Barcelona or Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid. He could be to PSG what they are to their respective clubs- an icon. And all it will take is a Champions League title.

And let’s face it, it’s a little about the money too…

The money on offer is staggering. No question. But beyond a certain point, money isn’t of prime importance any more and I think Neymar has reached that stage. There are a lot of questions that hang around his career at this stage of his footballing life – and have been hanging for quite some time.

Where would he be without Messi?

Can he finally deliver Brazil to the promised land for the first time since 2002?

Is he good enough to lead a team?

Neymar’s move to PSG has a lot of questions but by jumping ship from Barcelona to PSG, he has in a way taken the next step in his career. He has always been an ambitious player and what remains to be seen now is if his ambition will be the reason PSG succeed at a club level and he succeeds at a personal level or like many players before him, his ambition is but a prelude to his downfall.

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