Where there’s smoke in soccer transfers, there’s often fire, and it sure looks like Neymar is about to burn it all down in Paris. A little under a month after we wondered whether Neymar could actually be on the move again, two recent reports sure make it seem like the 27-year-old superstar winger is going to leave the French capital for greener pastures in Spain. The question there now seems to be when, more than if, which still feels hard to believe.
The first report isn’t really a report at all, but rather a statement from Paris Saint-Germain proper. In it, the club said that Neymar was supposed to be in training on Monday with the rest of the side, but skipped it. Normally, that’s a minor headline, but with the growing buzz around him leaving to Barcelona, or possibly Real Madrid, it became A Whole Thing. The statement didn’t slow the rumor mill, in large part because it was both short and brusque in stating that the club “deplores” the situation and will take appropriate action.
The second report is from a conversation between Le Parisien and new (and old) PSG sporting director Leonardo. In it, Leonardo stated quite clearly that the club’s stance has changed from a vague and politic “we want players who want to be here” to a direct “we will sell Neymar if the offer is right.” That’s no guarantee of a sale, but it’s perhaps the first real smoking gun in this saga.
Clubs are not usually in the business of making it public that their players are for sale, for two reasons. First, it tends to depress the value of the player if buying clubs know that he is on the marketplace. That doesn’t seem to be the case for PSG, who have more money than God; they seem willing to hold players semi-hostage if they do not receive what they deem an appropriate bid (see the weird saga of Adrien Rabiot for an example). The second reason is that, if the sale doesn’t come through, the player has to go back to work after having been essentially called out for not wanting to be there, which never goes over well with European soccer’s reactionary fan bases. At this point, would Neymar be welcomed back by the PSG faithful?
We may not have to find out; Barcelona is apparently still exploring the player swap (plus cash) that we discussed last time. The specifics have not been ironed out, though it seems like PSG would take Ousmane Dembélé, Samuel Umtiti, and cash. That seems fair, depending on the cash value, but it would leave Barcelona with the Philippe Coutinho problem for another year; the only silver lining there is that, just as in 2017, Neymar and Coutinho would like to play together.
Does the fact that they play the same position pose a problem? Of course. Will that matter for Barcelona’s board if it means they get to bring back one of the top three players on earth? Probably not. (In their defense, club president and vice-president Josep Maria Bartomeu said last week that they want Neymar but PSG do not want to sell, so that’s that; that may well have changed this week, although Bartomeu spoke to the media again on Tuesday to reiterate that the club’s stance remains the same.)
And so, as we enter the dead period of the soccer summer—the Women’s World Cup, Copa America, and Gold Cup all ended this past Sunday, while the African Cup of Nations will finish up this week—every whisper becomes a hurricane. That’s doubly true in this, the highest-profile transfer saga of the season. Neymar comes with his baggage, and it is significant: he’s injured all the time, he’s probably worse now than he was when he left Barcelona two years ago, and he’s been accused of rape in his native Brazil. But purely for on-the-field purposes, it seems like Barcelona are dead-set on bringing him back, and in that sense it’s hard to blame them.
As we reach what will likely be the end of Lionel Messi’s very extended prime, the quality of players around him matters more than ever. Bringing back someone Messi both loves and loves playing with seems like a no-brainer. With this week’s reports, it appears PSG is willing to cooperate, there. This whole thing could be over sooner than anyone expected even a month ago.