No city spells luxury quite like Paris. From Chanel and Dior to The Louvre and Guy Savoy, Parisians are accustomed to elegance and refinement of the highest order. Often at the highest price. For the past six years, the City of Light has also been home to Neymar Jr, the ultimate luxury footballer. Arriving as the world’s most expensive player to Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) from Barcelona in the middle of 2017, Neymar has sashayed his way through defences and shimmered in spells like the sublime talent that he is. But, like most luxuries, he has proven difficult to maintain, becoming more of an indulgence than an inspiration.
After a summer in which a comeback to Barcelona looked imminent, Neymar instead finds himself in the Saudi Pro League (SPL), having signed a two-year contract with Al-Hilal for a transfer sum of $102 million. In the manner of most headline moves to the SPL, Neymar’s switch is seen as a case of money as the biggest motivation. While a salary in excess of $200 million can hardly overturn that perception, the space to start afresh in a fast-growing league may just be what Neymar needs right now. Not just for his bank balance, but also for his career.
A victim of his own success
Neymar spent six seasons at PSG, winning five league titles, but missing out on UEFA Champions League gloryGetty Images
In 498 club appearances till date, Neymar has 295 goals and 190 assists to his credit. That gives him more goal contributions per game than Cristiano Ronaldo. Following his entry into Europe with Barcelona in 2013, Neymar won 22 trophies on the Continent, finishing third in the Ballon d’Or rankings in 2015 (behind Lionel Messi and Ronaldo). Last season, when he missed a large chunk of the second half of PSG’s indifferent year due to injury, he still emerged as Ligue 1’s second-highest assist provider (behind Messi).
In other words, Neymar’s club career has been anything but underwhelming, with the Brazilian sometimes being a victim of his own success. Case in point being the argument that his inability to win the UEFA Champions League with PSG (the closest he got was the final in 2020) makes his world-record deal to the French capital “football’s worst-ever transfer”. While it is true that his time in Paris, blighted by numerous stretches on the sidelines, has not delivered what it promised, it is foolish to suggest, as many fans and critics have in recent days, that Neymar has been a flop. Without Neymar, PSG may not have won five league titles in six years, let alone cruise to them. Without Neymar, Kylian Mbappe may not have prospered into one of the world’s most devastating forwards. Most importantly, without Neymar, PSG would not have transformed into the multi-billion dollar brand they are today.
A part of the stigma around Neymar has nothing to do with hard facts. Rather, it entails accepting the mercurial personality of someone who is deemed to be a prima donna. In an age of team-centric footballing machines, Neymar remains a soloist. His showboating, play-acting and late-night partying are a throwback to a kind of individualism that elite football no longer values. Add to that his constant flare-ups with high-profile teammates like Edinson Cavani and Mbappe, and the story writes itself — Neymar’s ego is as elevated as his skill. However, as his time at Barcelona showed, Neymar is more than capable of integrating himself into a unit, even playing second or third fiddle, as long as he feels loved and cared for. That love and care invariably went missing in Paris under an administration that also failed to optimise Messi and is now entangled in a war of attrition with Mbappe.
The calm in the desert
Even if Neymar were to bag 50 goals in the SPL, would that really alter his legacy?Getty Images
At 31, Neymar, unlike most household names heading to Saudi, has not entered the twilight of his playing days yet. Although his proclivity for injuries, particularly muscular ones, remains high, there is little to suggest that he cannot produce his best football for at least another three to four years. But the bigger question is this — so what if he does? Even if Neymar were to bag 50 goals in the SPL, would that really alter his legacy? Would anyone care if he were unstoppable week in and week out in the world’s 36th most-competitive league?
The answer is two-fold. First, Neymar is not exactly in the backwaters of the beautiful game. Al-Hilal are, on just about every metric, the best club in Asia. The SPL is motoring along right now, with no limit or precedent in terms of its investment potential. While it may be naive to believe Ronaldo that “Saudi Arabia will soon overtake some of Europe’s top leagues”, it is reasonable to expect the SPL to provide a standard of football that can entice global fans without making its players feel like they have gone into semi-retirement. Second, for all of the riches on offer in the desert, Neymar’s most prized possessions are still to be had with Brazil. In spite of netting as many times for his country as Pele, Neymar’s solitary honour for the Samba Boys is the 2013 Confederations Cup. Each of his three World Cup campaigns so far has ended with insult to injury, quite literally, and when Brazil won the Copa America in 2019, Neymar was… you guessed it… injured.
Playing in Saudi could well enable Neymar to strike the right balance between decorating games for his club and deciding them for his country. Back in 2002, when Neymar’s compatriot, Ronaldo Nazario, completely fell out of rhythm at club level, he still managed to turn on the style and become a world champion with Brazil, winning the golden boot at the World Cup in Japan and South Korea for good measure. The situation is far less daunting for Neymar, who knows he will get his way at Al-Hilal. With a team built to play around him, Neymar will be the undisputed focal point, free of sharing the limelight with the likes of Messi and Mbappe. At this stage of his career, this mixture of liberation and latitude may just be what he needs to find the peace and the poise that have gone missing in recent seasons. Off the pitch, nobody is going to stop Neymar from living the life he wants to in Saudi. While in most cases, this can be a recipe for disaster, Neymar, who also has a family to look after, is the sort for whom exceptions might just work.
The prince waiting to be king
Neymar was supposed to succeed Lionel Messi at Barcelona, but is still looking for his turn to be the best in the worldGetty Images
The rumour mill suggests that Neymar wants to return to Barcelona in 2025, once his contract with Al-Hilal expires. Whether Barcelona want him then (they clearly did not want him now) is impossible to predict. What is more likely is that a route back to Europe would open up for Neymar if he can revive his brilliance in Saudi. Having said that, two years on, the SPL itself could have reached a stage of evolution where Neymar feels content to stay back, especially if it can allow him to be in the running for the Ballon d’Or.
Back in the first half of 2017, when Neymar, desperate to be the best in the world, was determined to leave Messi’s shadow at Camp Nou, it was Messi who reportedly told him: “If you want to win the Ballon d’Or, stay at Barca and I’ll help you win the Ballon d’Or.” Neymar, not wanting the Argentine’s help, left Barcelona all the same. Since then, Messi has won football’s most prestigious individual gong twice (with another on the cards this October), while Neymar has not even made it to the podium once (he will not this October). There is a parallel world in which Neymar continues at Barcelona, takes over from Messi (much like Messi succeeded Ronaldinho) and assumes the mantle of the finest of his generation.
While that parallel world has long been lost, that mantle is still up for grabs. Time, after all, is on Neymar’s side, and with Messi and Ronaldo gradually retreating into the shadows, a golden opportunity beckons. There are those who believe, with strong evidence, that the likes of Mbappe and Erling Haaland have already begun the next stage of football’s quest for supremacy. But now that he is back enjoying the sport he loves, Neymar may have a thing or two to say about that. Having been the prince of football for a decade and more, the entry into a new kingdom may just ignite, and not extinguish, Neymar’s chance to be king.