This article also featured on Guardian Sport.
“Se queda,” “il reste” and “he stays” are words that have become synonymous with Neymar and the ever-swirling transfer circus that engulfs him, despite it never really being wholly true. Ten days after Gerard Piqué posted his famous “se queda” tweet in 2017, Neymar proved him wrong. Now, after a summer in which Barcelona tried to bring him back, he has stayed put in Paris.
Given the fanfare surrounding Neymar’s initial €222m arrival from Barcelona in 2017 – a moment the decision-makers at PSG saw as signalling a shift in the power base of European football as well as a huge PR triumph – the prospect of effectively conceding that the endeavour had ended in failure was more than unpalatable for the club. Yet, unusually for PSG under QSI ownership, the club have handled the undulating saga surprisingly deftly.
Leonardo, who returned to the role of sporting director at the club this summer, has been surprisingly open about negotiations and PSG’s supposed willingness to sell, continually drawing attention away from manager Thomas Tuchel and his relationship with the player. When Neymar failed to report for pre-season training, Leonardo made it clear that PSG were not going to stand in his way. “It is a financial question,” he said. “Neymar can leave PSG if there is an offer which suits everyone. But up to now, we do not know if anyone wants to buy him, or at what price. PSG want to count on players who want to be here and build something big. We do not need players who are doing a favour to the club by being here.”
Leonardo has maintained that stance throughout. “Barcelona always knew what we wanted,” he explained this weekend, contributing to the sense that PSG have remained in control of the situation. “They submitted their first written offer on 27 August. We’ve never had a written agreement with Barça.”
Understandably, Tuchel has always been keen for Neymar to stay. A PSG with the Brazilian in form and at the fulcrum of the attack has been his objective since he replaced Unai Emery last summer. Fostering and maintaining a positive relationship with “Ney” has been a priority for the manager throughout. Tuchel explained before the visit of Toulouse last month that Neymar had recovered from the ankle issue that kept him out of the Copa América and would play if the situation between player and club was “clear”, as he tried to draw a distinction between his relationship with Neymar and the club’s.
With Tuchel remaining cordial, Leonardo has played bad cop. Not only did the sporting director impose sanctions on Neymar for returning to pre-season training late – “Paris-Saint-Germain deplores this situation and will take the appropriate measures as a result,” read a club statement – but he has also been keen to assert his own authority and demonstrate that no player is bigger than PSG. “I am going to speak to you in French,” Leonardo told the squad earlier this summer. “If some of you don’t understand me, all you have to do is take lessons.” Leonardo, himself a World Cup winner with Brazil, continued to draw Neymar’s ire on to himself, admitting this weekend that his bond with the player “is not the most simple relationship I have had in football,” all the while allowing Tuchel to remain relatively distant from proceedings.
Tuchel’s players have also repeatedly underlined a positive relationship with Neymar. Marco Verratti did his best to include a plain-clothed Neymar in on-pitch trophy celebrations after PSG beat Rennes in the Super Cup in August, even if Kylian Mbappé did then rather awkwardly shove his strike partner away from the podium. Mbappé, however, went on to offer unequivocal support: “I want Neymar to stay with us. I do not want him to leave. I have said this to him. Everything is going well between us.” Thiago Silva later concurred, saying: “Neymar is irreplaceable. He is a key player. I hope he will stay.”
Whether by design or not, PSG hedged their bets well. Any deal would have to be on their terms, thus avoiding a major loss of face or reputation, while those who work with Neymar on a daily basis were always there to suggest he would be welcome to stay, allowing for what should be a relatively seamless reintroduction to the team. It seems a truce will now remain in place until next summer after Neymar told his entourage over the weekend he would stay in Paris for another season.
Relations with PSG’s vociferous fanbase may not be so easily soothed, however. At their first home game this season, PSG ultras unveiled ant-Neymar banners and chanted that he is a “son of a bitch” – much to the anger of the player’s entourage according to L’Équipe. His bond with the fans has been weak for some time. Earlier this summer, Neymar explained that, alongside Brazil’s triumph at the Olympics in 2016, his best memory as a footballer was beating PSG when with Barcelona in the famous “remontada” at Camp Nou, before going on to say his best dressing room moment was directly following that 6-1 win. His answer may have been honest, but it lacked tact and PSG supporters were, characteristically, unimpressed.
Apparently the fact he feels disliked in France has contributed to Neymar’s his desire to leave, but whistles and the continued mistrust of some PSG fans is something he will have to deal with, in the short term at least. While those feelings may eventually dissipate – especially if he drags PSG to European success or a domestic treble – how that dynamic plays out in the immediate future may shape much of PSG’s season and any ensuing second round of negotiations.
Neymar’s desire to leave Paris remains clear for now. With both Barcelona and the player keen on a re-coupling, Catalan newspaper Sport reported that Neymar was willing to use a chunk of his own money to force the deal through. L’Équipe later suggested that he was willing to contribute as much as €20m.
Leonardo says he wants Neymar to “respect his contract and give 100%” and for the pair to “talk” and “solve the things that have happened”, although that is likely to be but a fleeting arrangement. Having spent €200m on Frenkie de Jong and Antoine Griezmann this summer, Barcelona simply couldn’t afford to meet PSG’s asking price, which led to an unwieldy attempt at a players-plus-cash arrangement. But they will be back, especially if they fail to recapture the Champions League this season.
Even so, had Barcelona upped their cash offer and had winger Ousmane Dembélé been keen to join Ivan Rakitic and promising teenage French defender Jean-Clair Todibo at PSG, Neymar may have become a Barcelona player once more. There remains at least a theoretical willingness from all parties for this deal to be concluded at some stage. Se queda, but only for now.
by Adam White