Neymar: What went wrong for PSG and Brazil superstar and what next for the boy ‘never allowed to grow up’

After once having the world at his feet the Brazilian finds himself at a career crossroads after a string of bad decisions by both himself and those surrounding him

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Thursday 25 July 2019 07:09
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Transfer deadline day summer 2019: The deals done so far

It was a moment, for once, when Neymar stood his ground.

It is also a moment that helps to explain the current stand-off at the top of the transfer market, but may change some understanding of the Brazilian’s situation. It is certainly one of a few misconceptions about it.

Back in that seismic summer of 2017, Neymar’s father – the so pointedly named Neymar Sr – actually tried his best to keep his son at Barcelona. The forward himself, however, was the one who pushed to go to Paris Saint-Germain. He wasn’t being helplessly guided into anything. Neymar specifically said he wanted to be his own man.

The fact that statement can be interpreted a number of ways indicates one of the problems with the 27-year-old’s teetering career right now.

There’s first of all the idea he wanted to mark himself apart from his father in a football sense, and drop the “junior” in terms of his actions at least. That he wanted to grow up.

There’s second of all the pure football view that he wanted to break away from Leo Messi, and thereby eventually usurp him as the greatest player in the world.

There’s finally what many see as the most crucial issue, that he just wanted to assert his own power in his own entourage. If that is the case, and this was a response to a situation where a talented player has generally spent much of his career getting told what to do and where to go – one source says that, with his many commercial deals, “he pretty much does as he is told” – it illustrates a lot about where we are now.

Where we are now, undeniably, is that Neymar himself views the PSG move as “a mistake”. He wants out – preferably to Real Madrid or Barcelona – and has made that very clear. The problem is that many clubs who could take him out of Paris wonder about what that man has become.

“Neymar has a few things that aren’t good,” Rivaldo – very much Neymar’s Brazilian predecessor – concedes.

As The Independent reported in June, there are genuine concerns his career could “unravel”. There are worries about his commitment, and his discipline, which are now shared by PSG.

Neymar himself has worried about Antoine Griezmann’s move to Barcelona, and what that might mean for his future.

His entourage have told him to keep calm, but they have still escalated attempts to move him on. PSG actually approached Manchester United about a possible swap for Paul Pogba earlier in the summer. Neymar’s own people have in the last two weeks floated the idea of a similar exchange with Real Madrid involving Gareth Bale.

Even a United hierarchy so keen on star signings, however, felt this was far too expensive a deal for a star with so much baggage. Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane meanwhile just isn’t so enthused, and would prefer to use any sale of Bale to leverage a deal for Pogba. It similarly says much that even Madrid president Florentino Perez has realised Kylian Mbappe currently represents more value, and the aim at the Bernabeu is to go big on him next summer.

Mbappe has grown to overshadow Neymar in Paris

The emergence of the young French superstar has been one of many problems for Neymar in the past two years, to go with injuries and a general ennui and dissatisfaction at PSG. In the words of someone close to the situation, those problems have snowballed to the point the player’s entourage realise they’ve “lost control”.

They realise they need to get his football career back on track, and get the move that instigates that.

The further intrigue to all of this is that move could directly condition so much of a completely deadlocked transfer market, such is the high price PSG want, and its potential consequence.

It feels like it is the juncture move of the summer, but also the juncture move in Neymar’s career.

At 27, and notionally coming into his prime, there is the danger the Brazilian wastes it; falls behind; fritters that talent away.

“He has to take the decision now, not wait for another season,” Rivaldo insists.

The wonder is how it got to this.

Neymar’s career feels like it’s at a crossroads 

The explanation, really, is indulgence. But not just of the player; also of the intricacies around the personal management of a modern superstar. And it is something PSG have been responsible for – especially in almost letting him “do what he wants”, “train when he wants”, according to one source – but only partly.

The problems really start and end with those figures around the player, an issue that paints quite a portrait of the modern superstar’s life, even if Neymar is an extreme.

Many who know him say the public portrait of him is another misconception. Despite the images of utter petulance on the pitch, Neymar is described by those who have spent time with him as “genuinely a really nice boy”, “maybe a bit immature but also courteous, friendly to everyone, polite – and even helpful”. Expectations of a spoiled brat demanding everything be done for him are often instantly countered by Neymar himself carrying bags to hotel rooms, and that for people someone of his status need not give the time of day to.

“He’s hugely charismatic, has this smile that makes you feel like you want him to like you,” one source says.

The problem is getting to him, and the effect those around Neymar have on him.

“Something has definitely changed over the last 18 months,” the same source says. “You can see it.”

“A total prick,” one teammate, who previously liked Neymar, has privately told a journalist.

Neymar divides opinion

There are stories of him getting angry with people who don’t know who he is when out socially; of behaviour that puts younger players off him. Those who have known Neymar a while don’t recognise this in the “nice boy” they grew acquainted with. They do recognise it in his entourage, though.

A team of friends are described as a “nightmare to work with”, and “rude”, as “they literally try to walk through people”. One media figure laughs at being barged over by them during work appointments.

They have also caused problems with Neymar’s many commercial partners through their “disrespectful behaviour”, trying to encourage the player to just abandon a set when they believe the allotted time is up. They think they can behave how they want, without any regard for the consequences, or contract terms being breached.

That team doesn’t completely conform to the stereotype of indulged hangers-on running amok, though. It is otherwise fairly polished, as Neymar’s number of sponsors like Honda, EA and Mastercard attest to.

He has a commercial manager who has worked with him since his teenage years, looking after all such deals, and then a football agent – the famous Pini Zahavi – who exclusively negotiates with the clubs.

At the top of it, however, is the literal senior figure; the patriarch… whatever you want to call it: Neymar Sr.

The 54-year-old is described as shrewd about how he works, and likes to separate all the different areas of Neymar’s career to keep people on their toes. He also wants everything close-knit, which partly explains the presence of so many friends.

It should be stressed this is an arrangement Neymar completely trusts, even if the PSG decision illustrated that occasional willingness to assert control on the part of his career that really matters.

Neymar Sr is extremely charismatic himself, if often abrupt and blunt. The Independent actually shared a relatively empty Rostov bar with him on the eve of Brazil’s opening 2018 World Cup match with Switzerland, which is a reflection of the small size of the town rather than any glamour. The father sprinkled some of his own magic on the place, though. To watch him in the venue, you would have thought he was the star player, such was the way he was treated by the entourage. Neymar Jr – otherwise described as “the king of any room he walks into” – is said to shrink in his presence, which explains much.

Neymar would love to return to the Nou Camp

There is similarly so much talk about the son being “infantilised” by his father, “never allowed to grow up”. Anyone can divine the pop psychology angle here. “He is told what to do and when.”

One of the problems the entourage had in the build-up to that World Cup, however, was that they signed up the player to do too much. They basically agreed to anything if the money was right. This coincided with the first major injury Neymar had at PSG, complicating so many of his commitments, and just ratcheting up the immense pressure on him. Something had to give.

Little wonder this has felt like a career where the fulfilment of that immense football talent has become secondary. Little wonder they realise he needs a change.

Many who have worked with the entourage, however, have conspicuously noted a change in them already. They’re more helpful. They realise the need to get this right, to get him back to the Camp Nou, or the Bernabeu.

They realise the need to surround him with the right people, and maybe one in particular.

One Camp Nou source certainly feels this way, having been privy to the situation of two years ago.

“He’s a baby but Barcelona is best for him,” the source says. “The thing he didn’t want is potentially the only thing that can save his career as a truly top-level player – the shadow of Messi.

“He looks up to Messi and likes him. Messi will keep manners on him without having to actually do anything. Just being alongside him is enough.”

Rivaldo concurs.

“He’s a brilliant player who made a mistake in leaving Barcelona. I think it’s a good opportunity and, if he comes back here, everything will change in his life, and he’ll have good possibilities.”

Neymar’s next move feels like a crucial one

The complication is getting him there, and how Barcelona afford it and fit him in.

As of now, it feels impossible without PSG accepting players going the other way – and those players accepting it too. Philippe Coutinho, however, is said to have no interest in such a move.

The wonder is if Coutinho can be persuaded by those around him to go – something else which points to one of the themes of Neymar’s career.

There’s also the theory doing the rounds that this could all just be a Barca way of making him pay for how that career has gone – that there is an element of petty revenge to their manoeuvres. That people can actually think this emphasises how genuinely humiliating the summer of 2017 was for the Catalans.

“If that is the case, they’ve unsettled him and made PSG say he can go… only to leave him there,” one agent who has worked with the club says. “Genius, even if unintended.”

It does seem a bit far-fetched to be intended, but that doesn’t make this deal any less complicated.

That’s where Neymar’s career has got to, dependent on something like this.

It’s quite a situation he’s got into, for someone still so young and so talented, and still at such a major club. And yet it feels he badly needs to make that next step, for fear of standing still, or worse.

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