On 27th May 2017, Neymar scored his 105th and final goal for Barcelona as the Blaugrana defeated Alaves to lift the Copa Del Rey. Barely nine weeks later, he left the Iberian Peninsula en-route to Paris, in a still unbroken world record 222 million euros deal.
His departure marked the end of the MSN trident, which had firmly established itself as the premier striker force in the world. Neymar had, alongside the irrepressible Luis Suarez, who hungered for goals like vampires pine for blood, and the otherworldly Lionel Messi, whose performances routinely reached extra-terrestrial dimensions torn apart all of the Catalans opponents be it domestic or foreign.
With 122 goals in their first season as a partnership, and 131 in their second led the club to seven trophies in three years, including a Treble of La Liga, Copa Del Rey and the UEFA Champions League in 2015/16.
The overwhelming sentiment in the aftermath of the seismic transfer was that Neymar had grown frustrated with being in Messi’s shadow, and had left to establish a reputation for himself and maybe, finally wrest the title of the world’s best player from his erstwhile teammate. With the benefit of hindsight, it probably hasn’t worked out to that end.
Despite winning three consecutive titles and scoring a mind-boggling 47 goals in just 52 league appearances for PSG, the feeling lingers on that the Brazilian has been disappointing and disappointed in equal measure.
For starters, his Parisian sojourn has been plagued by multiple injuries, which explain why he has played relatively few games over three seasons. Then there is the fact that he has been accused of being an antagonistic character in the dressing room, with a public feud over penalty duties with Edinson Cavani presented as clear evidence of this.
There is also the running joke by his detractors about how he left Barca to get out of Messi’s shadow, only for him to end up in Kylian Mbappe’s shadow at PSG, as the French prodigy has quickly become the face of the club.
Perhaps the most damning is the accusation that Neymar has failed to elevate PSG to the next level, widely believed to be lifting the UEFA Champions League as the club got eliminated by Real Madrid in 2018, and quite humiliatingly by Manchester United in 2019.
Neymar had grown frustrated with being in Messi’s shadow and had left to establish a reputation for himself
Neymar predictably missed the entire tie against United due to injury. Back in Spain, Barcelona itself is mired in what can be described by outsiders as a moderate degree of chaos. The thing about a club of Barcelona’s stature is that even the most minor challenges are extrapolated to the level of travesties.
On the surface, everything is running as it should with the club defending champions of the La Liga, which they reclaimed from Real Madrid in the very first season after Neymar’s departure, and won again last season.
However, they do look set to miss out on this year’s title to Los Blancos, barring a spectacular collapse by Real. Add in the fact that Barca hasn’t won the European Cup for five years now, during which time their arch-rivals won it thrice in a row as well as the fact that managerial stability has been lacking since Luis Enrique’s departure.
You can begin to understand why Barcelona, despite maintaining their place at the pinnacle of Spanish football seem like a club in crisis. Club captain and talisman Lionel Messi, widely regarded as the most important person at the club, even more so than beleaguered President Josep Maria Bartomeu is reported to be unhappy and some reports have even gone ahead to claim that he is unwilling to extend his current contract beyond it’s end in 2021.
It is assumed that, among others, the club’s failure to return or at least effectively replace Neymar three years on is one cause of his unhappiness. It hasn’t been for want of trying though, with the club signing Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho and most recently Antoine Griezmann at astronomical fees, only for them to deliver to varying degrees of mediocrity for diverse reasons.
For Dembele, incessant injuries have derailed his progress and though he has shown flashes of brilliance, one struggles to see a future for him at the club. Coutinho turned out to be a bad fit and was sent out on loan to Bayern Munich. He is reported to have his heart set on a move back to the English Premier League, with his preference being a return to Liverpool.
Griezmann has fared much better than the former two, although he has also found himself often scapegoated for being unable to completely gel with Messi and Suarez in games that Barca failed to win.
The jury remains out on him, despite recent good performances like a 4-1 win over Villarreal in which he scored a fine goal from a Messi assist, indicating what could happen if the two manage to establish a connection.
It must be understood that Griezmann joined from Atletico shortly before talks between Barca and PSG for the transfer of Neymar back to Spain kicked off, which further raises accusations of a lack of strategy on Bartomeu’s part regarding transfers. The talks would end unsuccessfully after Barca failed to stump up the fee asked for by the parisians, and swap deals involving the likes of Ivan Rakitic, Nelson Semedo and Dembele, amongst others were roundly rejected by both PSG and the players themselves.
The saga ended with all the involved parties frustrated, and Bartomeu embarrassed after failing to deliver on what turned out to be an illogical promise to “bring Neymar back”. Messi and Suarez haven’t shied away from subtly expressing their desire to be reunited with the Brazilian, and Neymar himself as openly flirted with the idea of returning to the Camp Nou even attracting vitriol from PSG Ultras when he said the 6-1 Remontada in which Barcelona eliminated PSG back in 2017 was his best game ever.
The general expectation was that Barcelona would return for him in this summer transfer window but with finances decimated by the economic effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, any big-money deals might be extremely difficult to execute.
However, a player of Neymar’s ability and profile would definitely recover any investment on him in the long run and it makes sense that Barcelona will attempt to bring him back indeed. There are definitely other areas that need strengthening.
Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez are ageing and will soon need able replacements. Bizzare moves for the likes of Miralem Pjanic and Arturo Vidal, as well as exits for talents like Arthur Melo merely complicate the rebuilding process but there is no doubt whatsoever that were Neymar to return, it might be a catalyst for the Catalan recovery by providing proof of the club’s seriousness in the construction of a new project.
Author: Timothy Ainebyoona
Timothy is a dynamic analyst passionate about news and all things sport.