Early Neymar, Cavani Feud Threatens PSG's Project, Shows Frailties in Superteams

Wherever there has been money in football there have been egos, and wherever there are egos there is conflict. PSG is finding that out quite quickly.
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In 1950, Sunderland signed the Wales international Trevor Ford from Aston Villa for a British record fee of £30,000, also buying a house for him and his family. He was good looking, physically imposing and he guaranteed goals. On his home debut, he scored a hat trick against Sheffield Wednesday and augmented his reputation as the most powerful center forward in the game by breaking the goal-frame with a shot. He was as close as British football came to a celebrity in those days, and everybody loved him. Everybody apart from Len Shackleton.

Shackleton had joined Sunderland from Newcastle in 1948 for what was then a British record fee of £20,500. He was a brilliant and individualistic inside-left, a charming man with a caustic wit. He had been the darling of the fans and didn’t like that status being challenged. The story goes that after Ford had completed his hat trick, he played a pass to him so loaded with spin that the striker couldn't control it, at which Shackleton turned to the crowd and shrugged.

That may be apocryphal, but the pair never got on, and Ford accused Shackleton of deliberately denying him service, although some teammates suggest Ford was simply incapable of reading Shackleton’s intentions. Shackleton responded to the accusations during a friendly against a Netherlands B side by taking the ball past the goalkeeper, stopping on the line and rolling the ball sarcastically to Ford, sneering, “Don’t say I never give you a pass.” Eventually Ford refused to play if Shackleton was in the side, leading to his departure in 1953 for Cardiff.

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Wherever there has been money in football there have been egos, and wherever there are egos there is conflict. PSG is the latest to find this out.

The tension between Neymar and Edinson Cavani, which has led to the Brazilian reportedly asking PSG’s leadership to sell the Uruguayan, is nothing new. What is unusual, though, is how quickly their mutual distaste seems to have spilled over and how severe the consequences may be.

PSG beat Lyon 2-0 on Sunday, but far more significant than the club's sixth win out of six in the league this season was a pair of clashes between Neymar and Cavani. First, Dani Alves grabbed the ball from Cavani as the Uruguayan went to take a free kick, instead handing it to his compatriot. Then, Cavani grabbed a penalty from Neymar, and, making matters worse, missed from the spot. The two reportedly then had to be separated in the dressing room after the game.

That there had been no reconciliation became clear in that most modern of ways as Neymar unfollowed Cavani on Instagram before, on Tuesday, reports surfaced that Neymar had written to the PSG chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi saying it was “impossible” for him to carry on playing in the same side as Cavani and demanding his transfer.

This presents PSG’s leadership with a huge problem. On the one hand, it has a €222 million asset to nurture. Having spent that sort of money, it cannot really afford to ostracize Neymar–its star player, its brand ambassador, its manifestation of Qatarai soft power. And Cavani, although he has scored seven league goals already this season, is probably expendable. He is 30, and there has been a feeling for a little while that he does not convert as many chances as he perhaps should–even though he led Ligue 1 last season with 35 goals.

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But if PSG does transfer-list Cavani, what does that say about the club’s dependence on Neymar? It can never be healthy if a player is so dominant he is effectively dictating transfer policy. What if the next person he falls out is the rather less expendable, €145 million asset Kylian Mbappe? That Sunderland side of the early 1950s spent so much money it became known as the Bank of England club, but it won nothing and ended up being relegated, for the first time in its history, in 1958.

There, the tensions between players were caused by underachievement. As results persistently failed to live up to expectation, everybody scrabbled around looking for excuses and people to blame. The problem for PSG seems rather the opposite: it’s all a bit too easy. PSG has scored 21 and conceded three in the six league games so far. Barring something extraordinary, it will win Ligue 1 easily.

Already there have been games in which Neymar has played as though in an exhibition, performing a catalogue of tricks. It’s all simple. And if there is no external competition, then internal rivalries take on additional edge. Neymar wants to win the Ballon d’Or, and one way to help achieve that is to score an eye-catching number of goals. Every penalty somebody else takes is a goal he isn’t scoring.

Plenty of teams that have dominated their domestic leagues have collapsed amid narcissism and self-indulgence. In terms of winning Ligue 1, this unseemliness probably isn’t especially significant. But with Bayern Munich coming up in the Champions League next week, PSG’s first real test of the season, this isn’t a good time for the strain of domination to begin to show.