At first he swayed a little but they held him steady and so he stood above them, fist raised, taking it in. From below, a match photographer, Santiago Garcés, pointed his camera. Within two days, 70 million people had seen the picture of the night, which had swiftly become the most-viewed picture in Barca’s history. “People say it’s the best anyone’s ever taken of Leo Messi,” Garcés said.
Hang on a minute: Leo Messi? Astonishingly, Barcelona scored three times in seven minutes and 17 seconds. But it was not the Argentinian at the heart of them all, it was Neymar – curling in a superb free-kick, winning and taking a penalty and providing the delivery from which Sergi Roberto scored.
That was his eighth assist, the Champions League’s leader, and all of them had come from open play. He had led throughout, taking responsibility and taking hits: hyperactive, creative and everywhere. “This was the best game I’ve played,” he said. But the enduring image of a historic night was Messi.
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With Barça it almost always is, and maybe there is something in that? The argument most consistently forwarded for Neymar’s decision to leave for PSG is the suggestion that he believes it is time to stand alone. There’s the money – he is set to become the world’s best-paid player, his salary will reportedly double while his father will grow even richer, receiving a €36m commission to go with almost €100m he has earned from Barcelona – and it would be naive to dismiss that as a fundamental factor. But status is not always measured by current account; shadow is a word used a lot of late, and the one Messi casts is long.
That, at least, is the theory: Neymar wants to step centre-stage and lead; he can now play where he wants and how he wants, not have to adapt to others. If he stayed at Barcelona it would never be about him and nor would the Balon d’Or; at the Parc des Princes, success would be his own; PSG would be his team, players brought to his specifications, and he will be surrounded by his people, friends and countrymen. In this scenario Dani Alves’s signing is re-evaluated, his role recast as the man who convinced him, showed him that they would do it his way. So, it seems, is the way Neymar, and others, have seen his role over the past few years.
On the face of it, the theory is not flawless. With Messi and Luis Suárez, Neymarformed a front three that many considered the best in the world, maybe the best football has seen.
Neymar set to seal £198m PSG move after telling Barcelona he wants to go
He arrived saying that he had come to play with Messi and if his status within the trident was not the same as the Argentinian’s it was enhanced – at least to start with – and they genuinely were a collective. A successful one: they won, which meant that he won. A treble in the first season was followed by a double in the second, even if last season’s Copa del Rey represented a disappointment.
In footballing terms, it did work; last season was not judged the failure of the front three, even when the focus on them rather than the midfield was interpreted as Barcelona losing their religion. Friendship was endlessly presented as the secret to their success. At times it was a little sugar-sweet, and the three men repeated the same easily digestible lines as if reading from a script, but that did not make it untrue – although the most significant connection was Suárez-Messi. They genuinely get on: when it emerged Neymar was contemplating leaving, Suárez and Messi tried to talk him round, and jealousy, so palpable in other cases elsewhere, rarely surfaced in theirs. The players are genuinely sorry to be losing Neymar, who was popular in the dressing room.
On the pitch, the suggestion that Neymar and all his team-mates had adapt their game to suit (to serve) Messi should not go entirely unchallenged either. It was the Argentinian who shifted from striker to the right and then dropped deeper and more to the middle, benefitting the other two, who often had a No10 behind them, a trend that seemed to be deepening in pre-season, Neymar inside closer to Suárez.
And a simple count of Messi’s passes to Neymar, some ending in goals, some not, helps undermine the suggestion that the Brazilian might be better off without him.
Yet it is true that Neymar’s place to the left was not the free, central role he has with Brazil, something he his reminded of every time international duty rolls round. It is also true that his best spell at Barcelona came when he took responsibility with Messi’s injury. Nor was his status the same, celebrated though his was.
Emotionally, the desire for more is easy enough to understand, if not always share. Even in a team sport, ambition can mean going it alone. And being the very, very best might feel like it is just within reach. There is one flaw: Messi still exists and may be even more of an opponent now.
Besides, eventually that status was supposed to be within reach in Spain too. Neymar was runner up in the Balon d’Or when Messi won it (in truth, it was Suárez who could feel overlooked). It felt like a first step, not an ultimate aim. There was time, Barcelona thought. Neymar is 25; Messi and Suárez are 30. The present is already partly his; the future would be all his. Maybe he was in more of a hurry than they realised.
Last season they renewed his contract until 2021 and although he had talked to PSG, he said he was delighted to continue. If that was true then, he seems to have changed his mind. He had at least started to doubt. “We’re close friends and I want him to stay but I know the situation that the finds himself in,” Gerard Piqué, the Barça defender, said.
Neymar’s departure would be a huge blow which €222m will not diminish entirely, not in this market and still less in the hands of this board, mistrusted by many. It can be usefully invested for sure but as Piqué put it “there’s no one the same as him on the market” – and the image is of a club debilitated.
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