“Did I act badly?” Neymar reflected on Instagram after video surfaced of him striking a fan following PSG’s loss to Rennes in the Coupe de France final. He admitted that he had, but excused his behavior as a byproduct of his overly competitive nature and how much he hates losing. That moment was a culmination of a week in which he also received a three-game suspension in the Champions League for criticizing officials following PSG’s loss to Manchester United in the quarterfinals. Careful not to anger his superstar, Thomas Tuchel treaded lightly in his criticism of Neymar following the fan incident, saying only that players cannot hit supporters and must show respect after losses. It was only Dani Alves who broke rank in holding Neymar accountable, saying that “despite our friendship, I don’t approve of what he did.”
Tuchel had been warning his side for weeks that there would be consequences for their lackadaisical play, starting with PSG needing multiple chances to finally clinch the Ligue 1 title that already seemed a forgone conclusion with the side up double-digit points. Three out of their four losses in the league have come within the last three weeks, leading up to the finals loss. Failing to secure the league following a 3-2 loss to Nantes in mid-April, Tuchel said it was impossible to defend his team’s play. Yet despite the complaints of lethargy, PSG would eventually win the league title having scored almost 40 more goals than any other team, with a goal differential of +67. And like his approach with Neymar, Tuchel is careful in how much he can push his players lest they turn on him. PSG are built around their stars not only on the field, but in the branding off it.
But this season may have marked a turning point on that end as well. PSG’s ambivalence has resonated amongst ownership, with the Qatar Investment Authority reportedly rethinking their financial commitment to the club following PSG’s lack of progress in the Champions League and loss in the domestic cup. The group is worried that a lack of success in tournament play, despite their billion dollar investment into purchasing players, reflects poorly on its image. They are also said to be sensitive to the criticism levelled at the group in France. PSG may have hit a limit to what a footballing ecosystem could handle. Building a side through expensive purchases is accepted as a facet of the modern game. Losing in important European competitions creates an aura surrounding a club. Petulant behavior only augments those two aspects, and Neymar has never shied away from any confrontation.
Yet even analysts in Brazil have grown wary. One Brazilian commentator observed that “it’s always someone else’s fault” when Neymar gets into an incident, while another journalist wondered if Tite needed to rethink how he treats Neymar’s status on the national team. In another world, we would be debating whether at age 27, he was the best player in the world. Instead, it’s a conversation about accountability and behavior seeping into a quest for building a global brand. That relationship between club and brand is growing ever more narrow, with Nike rumored to be increasing their jersey sponsorship deal with PSG in an effort to keep Neymar and Kylian Mbappe from moving to Adidas and Real Madrid.
Neymar’s $263 transfer from Barcelona to PSG in 2017 is considered the turning point in the European transfer market, one which we’re still feeling the effects of today while not fully understanding its implications. His price tag set a new level of what teams could demand for a top talent, with 9-figure transfer rumors attached to the latest teenage prospect. As the Brazilian journalist who broke the story said, “you have [$90 million] for someone like Alvaro Morata or Romelu Lukaku” because of the price PSG set for Neymar.
Though there is the question of whether it was all worth it, of whether Neymar would do it again knowing what he knows now. He gives hints of nostalgia for his former club. Barcelona teammate Adriano said that Neymar regretted leaving in the first place. Neymar admitted that it would be difficult to turn down a return if Messi were to hypothetically reach out to him personally. Leaving the comfort of a home in search of something more is a story that transcends the sport, told either through the lens of triumph or caution.
“It’s a disgrace,” an injured Neymar raged live on Instagram following PSG’s controversial loss to Manchester United in the Champions League on a late penalty. “They get four guys who don’t understand football to watch a slow motion replay in front of a TV.” Tuchel said his rant was proof of how badly his star wanted to be out on the field.
In recent seasons, right in front of our eyes, the Champions League switched from being a glamour trophy to the single defining symbol of a side’s season. It’s been both described in the past as a “dream” or an “obsession,” but beyond any hazy terms, it is now the measure of a certain type of club’s success. One can trace this back to the contemporary age of teams battling for the global attention and reach that comes with the biggest club tournament in the sport. Juventus created a documentary on Netflix about trying to win in Europe. Trying to control the mistakes and moments throughout seven knockout matches is an impossible task, yet still remains the biggest ambition. Neymar, in moving to PSG, said “My priority is the Champions League...the Champions League is our biggest objective.”
Tuchel has his answers for next season, in adding a certain mentality to the side this summer. He wants players who “are used to playing 50 games, who are used to surmounting obstacles...who are used to giving everything they have.” He had hinted at discord earlier in the season, saying that he needed more midfield depth but “everyone thinks that’s okay because we are winning.” It’s usually the match-winners - the Neymar’s - who represent the final piece of a side’s success. PSG built their side backwards from that perspective, and at the very least, there is acknowledgement from both the ownership group and the manager of a need to fill in the details beyond just the stars. Those types of players may not increase the value of the brand directly, but they may give Tuchel’s side the balance it needs for a longer European run.