PSG hope Neymar brings UCL glory in exchange for status, comfort, money
For the last five years, going to the Parc des Princes has been a pleasant Paris night out. You stroll past the chic apartment buildings of the 16th arrondissement and take your seat in the heated stadium. Then you enjoy possibly the best French club team since Saint-Etienne in the 1970s.
Usually, Paris Saint-Germain wins; they've been French champions four seasons out of the past five. But every spring, the team ritually crashes out of the Champions League in the quarterfinals, usually to Barcelona. The crash seldom provokes much anger, because Paris isn't a passionate soccer city. Instead, most spectators simply transfer their interest to one of many other sources of entertainment.
In short, the Qatari state's project of turning the appalling pre-2012 PSG team into world-beaters had hit a wall. That's why PSG needs Neymar. He's not "the best player in the world," as the club's Qatari chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi called him on Friday, but he is a superstar of the caliber that Parisians expect.
To keep the locals excited, the club has to win the Champions League. The "transfer of the century" (at least until the next one comes along) puts PSG in the position where a bit of luck would get the club over the finish line.
Paying €222 million for Neymar has been widely dismissed as crazy. That's wrong. PSG's shrewd executives have been planning this transfer for years, always knowing it would cost a fortune. They enquired after Neymar when he was still playing in Brazil. Later, the club sniffed around Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. After realizing both quests were hopeless, it returned to Neymar.
Last summer, Al-Khelaifi flew to meet him and his father in Ibiza and promised the moon. Neymar's agent, Wagner Ribeiro, later said that PSG offered to make him the world's best-paid player and to fly him to Brazil's games in a private jet. But Neymar ended up signing a new, improved contract at Barcelona, leaving the Parisians feeling used.
Neymar and his father care a lot about money. When I asked the player about his childhood in an interview in 2014, he replied: "Tough. We didn't have much money but I never went hungry, my dad always provided. There's a story I told my mom: that when I became rich, I'd buy a cookie factory so I could eat cookies whenever I wanted."
Like most Brazilian players, he has to provide not only for himself and his extended family but also for old friends and acquaintances, as well as for his Neymar Jr. Institute, which helps poor young people in his old neighborhood in Santos. There's no need to feel sorry for him, but his reported net salary of €30m a year -- the highest in soccer -- won't all be spent on Ferraris.
As well as more money, PSG offered him something that Barca could not: the status of being No. 1 in the team. If Marco Verratti stays in Paris, then each time the Italian playmaker gets the ball, he will look first for Neymar on the left flank. (Julian Draxler, signed by PSG only last winter, will need to find a new berth.) If Paris wins the Champions League, Neymar will get the credit and, possibly, the Golden Ball.
When Al-Khelaifi said Neymar had come to PSG for "the project," people laughed, but that is what he meant.
There's a third benefit that Neymar can probably get only in Paris: the feeling of playing for a Brazilian club while earning superstar wages. He had a post-season holiday on a Brazilian beach with Dani Alves, the man he calls his "big brother," and it's no coincidence that PSG recently signed Alves. Neymar told PSG he also wanted to play with Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho and with Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal. Paris probably won't get them, but the club can already offer him a Brazilian enclave.
Maxwell, Neymar's former international teammate and PSG's new assistant sporting director, was in constant touch with him during the negotiations. The Brazilian contingent in the changing room includes (for now) Marquinhos, Thiago Silva, the Brazilian-Italian Thiago Motta and Lucas Moura, the little winger who has known Neymar since they played indoor soccer against each other as 6-year-olds in Sao Paulo.
Lucas told me two years ago that PSG had "a super group of Brazilians." He said: "We go out together, eat or do something at home. That's Brazilian culture: always together, happy, having positive thoughts." This is very appealing to Neymar. For all his money, his career will probably require him to endure at least a 10-year exile from his home country. PSG lets him spend it with a team of friends. The two Manchester clubs, probably PSG's main potential rivals for Neymar, cannot offer that.
But having a Brazilian enclave isn't all good news. Carlo Ancelotti, who coached PSG from 2011 to 2013, told me afterward that his squad was divided into ethnic factions.
"We had the South Americans, the French, the Italians. The relationship is not easy. The South Americans like to play with each other, the Italians the same. The players were not used to having a winning mentality."
So Neymar's signing has its drawbacks, but let's think this through from the owners' point of view, because it is Qatar's riches, more than PSG's revenue, that are funding this signing. They know he probably won't earn them back his transfer fee and salary, but their motives for buying go beyond that.
For a start, owning Neymar is a status symbol, like the Picasso painting a rich man hangs on his wall. The tiny country is the world's biggest exporter of liquid national gas and can spare €222m. In 2015, Nick Harris of Sportingintelligence.com estimates Qatar's spending on World Cup 2022-related infrastructure will be $200 billion, or 7,634 times Neymar's transfer fee.
Second, the signing is a PR coup for a country that needs one. Qatar is being blockaded by Saudi Arabia and its other neighbors, which accuse it of funding terrorists. Qatar needs friends, and France has long been its friend. President Emmanuel Macron, himself an Olympique Marseille fan, reportedly congratulated Al-Khelaifi on getting Neymar. "It's good news," Macron told journalists.
Neymar is, in part, a gift from Qatar to France. Vincent Duluc, star columnist at the French sports newspaper L'Equipe, said that for the first time since Michel Platini left Saint-Etienne for Juventus in 1982, the French league has one of the world's three best players.
The Qataris hope to give France an even bigger present: the Champions League. For years PSG have been hamstrung by UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules, which limited rich owners' spending -- they were even sanctioned in 2014. But if UEFA passes the Neymar transfer, as seems likely -- PSG's lawyers will have checked in advance -- then we'll know that FFP has been watered down almost to the point of non-existence. In that case, PSG can finally compete with traditional giants like Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Moreover, the softening of FFP would encourage more billionaires to buy their own European clubs.
Even without FFP, PSG's other big constraint remains the French league, which doesn't appeal to superstars. Neymar will have been reminded of this immediately after his presentation on Saturday, when he sat down to watch PSG's season opener at home to tiny Amiens. On Aug. 13, he will probably make his French league debut in the Breton village of Guingamp, population 7,003.
But what Parisians care about is the Champions League, and there they have one certainty: At least it won't be Neymar who knocks them out this season. In his six Champions League games for Barca against PSG, he scored seven goals and even masterminded the 6-1 demolition in March -- for which Messi, hurtfully, got most of the credit -- that sealed a miraculous comeback.
In a knockout competition like the Champions League, luck plays a big role, much more so than in a 38-match league. If PSG can reach the quarterfinals as per usual, then Neymar and a lucky break could send Parisians out to dinner in an uncharacteristically good mood.
Simon Kuper is a contributor to ESPN FC and co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of Soccernomics.