Probably the most astounding part of Barcelona’s world-historic Messi-Suárez-Neymar attacking line—even more so than all the tricks and flicks and assists and goals—was how well all three got along. The MSN era was defined by those three superstars’ genuine friendship, selflessness, and prioritization of the unit over the individual. And while it’s still very early on, Paris Saint-Germain’s new version of MSN—the Mbappé-Cavani-Neymar triumvirate—is already suffering from a kind of interpersonal tetchiness the predecessor bunch never experienced.
There were two big moments during this weekend’s PSG-Lyon match during which Neymar and Cavani engaged in some good old fashioned dick measuring. The first was actually facilitated by Dani Alves, as Cavani sought to take the ball from the full back after a foul so that Cavani could line up a free kick, only for Alves to continually refuse before handing the ball off to Neymar. The second, even more clearly fraught incident happened when Neymar tried to convince Cavani to let him take a penalty, which Cavani wasn’t having:
(Since the free kick spat, Alves has brewed up some phony excuse for his part in it. He says he wasn’t taking the ball away from Cavani with the aim of giving it to Neymar, but instead wanted to take the free kick himself only for Neymar to come and steal the ball away before he could do so. Judging from the video, that seems like bullshit.)
After the match—which PSG ended up winning, 2-0—Cavani reportedly stormed out of the locker room as quickly as possible, leaving out the back door to avoid talking with the media. There has also been speculation that in the match’s aftermath, Neymar unfollowed Cavani on Instagram, though the evidence for that contention is a little less firm. (But not non-existent: Here’s a tweet showing that Neymar does not follow Cavani’s account right now, and here’s another one that purports to show that Neymar did follow Cavani in the past.)
The underlying dynamics here are fascinating. Both Neymar and Cavani have legitimate reasons to believe that this is their team now, and neither seem like the type to back down easily.
One of my first thoughts upon realizing that Neymar would in fact leave Barcelona for PSG was about how now Neymar would finally be able to take all the free kicks his heart desired. Things like who takes free kicks and penalties are usually the clearest examples of a team’s social hierarchy, as those easy goal attempts are generally reserved for the team’s biggest star. And at Barça, Neymar was nowhere near that club’s biggest personality.
Still, in Barcelona this hierarchy was close to flat between each member of the MSN. All three members shared penalties and free kicks like friends eager to demonstrate their generosity toward one another. But in the biggest moments, it was Messi who usually took those spot kicks. Neymar didn’t seem to have any trouble deferring to the GOAT, but his decision to leave Barcelona had to be driven in large part by his desire to not have to defer, to be the Messi of his own team where he was the sun around which the rest of the club orbited. It seemed like Paris would be the perfect place for this to happen, but that does not appear to quite be the case just yet.
Cavani, meanwhile, has had a long wait to become the main man in Paris. When the Uruguayan first got there, Zlatan Ibrahimović was the star of the show, the man who took the penalties and the free kicks and whose place in the center forward position was so secure that Cavani was forced out onto the wing. That wide, subservient role was one Cavani never looked natural in, as it constrained his game and kept him away from the area of the pitch where he’s most effective. But what could he do, Zlatan is Zlatan, and no one is going to snatch the ball away from Zlatan to take a penalty.
Once Zlatan left, Cavani was finally able to return to the center of the pitch and become the fulcrum of the team’s attack. From the striker position, he scored 35 goals in 36 league appearances last season, seven of them penalties. Those stats put him only behind Messi in the race to be Europe’s highest goalscorer. In Cavani’s mind, that year had to be the validation he had long been waiting for, and the long-awaited start to what would be his era in Paris.
Though Cavani did have a very good season last year, it ultimately wasn’t enough. As great a striker as Cavani is, he cannot be the best player on a team with PSG’s Champions League trophy aspirations. Hence why PSG atomized transfer records by bringing in Neymar and Mbappé, two younger, exponentially more talented players to give the team the things Cavani and Co. could not the season prior. With Neymar coming to town with the express purpose of becoming the King of Paris on one side, and Cavani’s long wait to claim that title for himself on the other, something has to give.
Unfortunately for Cavani, there’s really only one way this plays out, and it’s not going to be in his favor. Sooner or later Neymar’s place as PSG’s unquestioned leader will be recognized, with or without Cavani’s assent. So far Neymar has been pretty magnanimous about the potential clash of egos, allowing Cavani to take a couple penalties earlier this season without much fuss. But the way Neymar stood there in front of Cavani’s face right as he was setting up to take that penalty on Sunday, and the way Alves backed Neymar by preventing Cavani from taking that free kick, supports the idea that Neymar and his loyalists in the squad will not stand for this much longer.
Whether Neymar and the squad’s large Brazilian contingent can successfully inform Cavani of what time it is, as Neymar and Alves tried doing this weekend, or if it takes the club’s higher-ups to do so, it’s inarguable that the future of PSG belongs to Neymar. One way or another this will become clear to Cavani. At that point, he’ll have two options: fall in line, or risk falling by the wayside.