Even in this summer of mind-boggling transfers, when it seems the entirety of football has lost its collective senses and that jaws couldn’t fall any lower, the transfer of Neymar from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain for a fee of $263 million, more than double the previous world record, has taken those jaws down into the basement.
It’s a complex move, a five-year deal to sign the 25-year-old Brazilian star, and one that defies belief on almost every level.
Barcelona was helpless, however much it wanted to hang on to Neymar, now that PSG has met his buyout clause, but it could have never expected anybody to pay that. This raises the question not only of why Neymar would want to leave a club that over the past decade has enjoyed extraordinary success while redefining the tactical parameters of the game to join a club that has never got beyond the quarterfinal of the Champions League, but also how that club can possibly afford it while complying with financial fair play regulations.
Let’s begin with the relatively simple bit: why Neymar may want to leave. Money, obviously, is a major factor, as, perhaps, is the assiduousness with which the Spanish tax authorities have begun investigating players. Last year a Spanish court found him guilty of tax evasion and fined him $66 million, reduced to $33 million this year on appeal.
There are, though, football reasons. Although ostensibly the front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar get on well, perhaps there is an element of frustration that, for now, the Argentine remains the headline figure. Neymar is five years younger than Messi, and there were signs even last season that he might soon become the main man, but there would probably still be a sense that this was Messi’s team. At PSG, Neymar will be the undisputed No. 1. It’s easy to see why the idea of being the player who, at last, brings PSG to its first Champions League title might appeal.
That may enhance his chances of winning the Ballon d’Or, an individual award that was once a side issue but now seems to dominate the thoughts of gifted young players, but the issue is far from clear. The award may be based in France, but no France-based player has topped the voting since Jean-Pierre Papin in 1991.
Neymar’s good friend, Dani Alves, who has been savagely critical of the Barcelona board and its treatment of players, is also now at PSG after a season at Juventus.
And if the French league is slightly less demanding than the Spanish league (which is far from certain) in a World Cup year, that is no bad thing either.
How, then, can PSG possible afford not only the initial fee but also wages likely to be around $600,000 a week for five years? That is where this deal gets really interesting. PSG, after all, is bankrolled by Qatari Sports Investment, the sovereign wealth fund representing the Qatari royal family. With the falling oil price, there has been widespread retrenchment in Qatar and even talk of imposing a tax system. Over the past two seasons, PSG has made only two major signings, Julian Draxler and Angel Di Maria.
Smashing records to land Neymar, then, is a major departure so abrupt that it’s hard not to wonder whether it may have less to do with football and PSG than with Qatar making a statement. Over the past two months, Qatar has been engaged in major diplomatic wrangling with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain following accusations that it supports terrorism. Its response has been to strengthen ties with Turkey and Iran and to emphasize its continuing economic might; it is, after all, the country with the highest GDP per capita in the world. Shattering the world transfer record is about as a high a profile a way as possible to let the world know that Qatar is still rich.
In that context, it may not be a coincidence that Barcelona’s deal with Qatar Airways came to an end on June 30, with the Japanese e-commerce firm Rakuten taking over as shirt sponsor. It’s probably going a little far to see this as a punitive measure, but what is true is that Qatar’s football interests are now all focused on one club.
That still doesn’t solve the issue of financial fair play–PSG was sanctioned in 2014 which in theory means a potential second offense–and it would seem likely there will have to be sales. Di Maria and Marco Verratti perhaps are the most likely to leave.
In simple terms, Neymar leaving Barcelona will weaken Ernesto Valverde’s side and raise further concerns about its aging core, while all but guaranteeing PSG another French title, particularly with Monaco weakened by departures this summer.
But Neymar’s move is about far more than that.