Rahul Warrier writes about the cumulative effects of Neymar’s transfer to PSG.
Few transfers have had such a transformative impact on the world market like Neymar’s move to Paris Saint-Germain. High transfer fees became commonplace in the 2010s, with the likes of Luis Suarez, James Rodriguez and Angel di Maria all moving for high fees. Neymar, however, shifted the goalposts in dramatic fashion. That move was perhaps football’s sliding door moment, a move that had great consequences for the world market, inflating transfer fees around Europe. It’s the butterfly effect played out on the big stage.
€222 million. Spanish buyout clauses are known to be exorbitantly high, given that they have been mandatory in contracts since 1985. Yet when Barcelona agreed on Neymar’s fee, they must never have realised one day, it could be met. PSG, backed by Gulf state Qatar, saw a chance to elevate their world standing, and paid out the fee for Neymar. The Brazilian, tempted by a change in scenario and a chance to be the main man away from the shadow of Lionel Messi, was happy to move.
Barcelona now had their pockets full of cash. Unfortunately, at that point, they had no replacement for Neymar. From their perspective, the 25-year-old Neymar was all set to take over from Lionel Messi one day, and now they had no contingency plan. Worst of all, rival clubs knew they had the money to spend, so would take every chance to fleece the Catalans. Any football club would struggle to negotiate a fair deal under these circumstances.
On 25th August 2017, 22 days after Neymar’s departure was announced, Barcelona announced an agreement with Borussia Dortmund for the transfer of Ousmane Dembélé. At the time, the 20-year-old Frenchman was one of the brightest prospects in world football. His first season at the senior level produced 12 goals and five assists at Stade Rennais, after which Borussia Dortmund came in and took him for €15 million. His output continued in Germany, where he had six goals and 13 assists in the Bundesliga and two goals and six assists in the Champions League. Dortmund, a club whose transfer policy revolves around selling youngsters at a profit, did just that with Dembélé: the fee was €105 million plus add-ons. Transfermarkt details the fee as €125 million, with the likelihood of several add-ons having still not been met.
It was a big commitment from Barcelona. In hindsight, they might have done better by staying put, or looking to sign a more experienced player as a cheaper alternative. Dembélé was hot property at the time, but it was a massive financial commitment for a player with just two seasons at senior level. Dortmund has already signed Maximilian Philipp earlier in in the window, and bought the experienced Andriy Yarmolenko as the window closed. In addition, Christian Pulisic was expected to shoulder a greater creative burden, while Jadon Sancho, the 17-year old Englishman, had moved from Manchester City.
Dembélé spent almost the entirety of the first half of the season nursing his injured hamstring, leaving Messi and Luis Suarez to shoulder the burden. Barcelona were still looking for more in the market, and looked to another South American: Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho. In the summer window, the Catalans had attempted to sign Coutinho, but their bids were turned down, with the player’s transfer request not helping. Coutinho hung around for the first half of the season, but his heart was clearly in a dream move to Barcelona. On 6th January 2018, Liverpool agreed on a deal for a fee of €145 million (according to Transfermarkt). The Merseyside club held their ground, knowing Barcelona, armed with money, would likely come back for him. They were proven right.
The Coutinho deal allowed Liverpool to close the deal for Virgil van Dijk, the towering centre-back from Southampton. Van Dijk had pushed for a move in the summer too, but when denied, hunkered down until the winter window. He moved for €84.5 million, smashing the then transfer record for a defender. While gathering criticism at the time, the van Dijk move proved to be the most important player Liverpool would add. His impact on the team’s defense has ironically trumped the impact both Dembélé and Coutinho have had on Barcelona, combined.
Having lost in the Champions League final that season, a showpiece occasion Coutinho moved to Barcelona to enjoy, Liverpool spent heavily in the summer of 2018, adding goalkeeper Alisson and defensive midfielder Fabinho. With Naby Keita arriving from a pre-agreed deal with Leipzig, Liverpool emerged out of the Coutinho deal strongest. With their attack now centered around the trio of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah, Liverpool pushed Manchester City all the way in the title run in 2018-19. They’ve all but won the 2019-20 season. To pinpoint the impact on one player would be reductive, but van Dijk converted a once shaky defensive unit to a strength, adding the intangibles required to become serial winners.
A look at the high transfer fees indicates that a number of transfer fees paid have been as a consequence of other deals falling in place. For example, Barcelona’s €120 million purchase of Antoine Griezmann in the summer of 2019 allowed Atletico Madrid to spend the same amount, give or take, on João Félix from Benfica. In a normal market, Atletico would not be able to meet the youngster’s high release clause. Whether or not he warranted such expense is another debate, but the fact remains that Atletico had the money, and used it on a replacement they deemed suitable for their long-term prospects. That’s one example.
Looking outside from the impact of Barcelona’s transfer decisions, the Neymar fee inflated the transfer market in a general sense. The trickle-down effect saw to that. But what it really did was normalise high transfer fees. There was a time when a €105 million move for Paul Pogba was a serious ‘wow’ moment, and similar can be said for Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo’s record-breaking moves to Real Madrid. Since then, fees in excess of €70 million are met with a shrug of the shoulder. In the light of Neymar’s fee, everything else seems less insignificant.
At one point, it looked like the market was set to explode. But COVID-19 has been an unlikely leveller. Clubs have lesser money to spend, with revenue streams shut off for months and wage cuts debated all over Europe’s top leagues. Transfers remain a priority, but clubs can no longer fund such exorbitant fees. It can be argued that such fees can only be spent by the truly rich clubs. Even then, the optics of funding mega deals, when many have taken wage cuts, along with furloughed staff, can leave a sour taste in the mouth.
Football will eventually go back to normal. The pandemic will end, and there is too much money and demand in the game. Fees will eventually rise once again, and so this may only be a temporary leveller. It leaves food for thought, however. Neymar’s move looks even more extraordinary under the circumstances; a transfer fee now so unscalable, with the concept of such investment on a singular asset entirely questionable.
Almost three years on, where are the clubs in question placed? PSG spent €145 million on Kylian Mbappé that same summer, even though the deal went through in 2018 and was conducted as a loan to buy. Mbappé, ironically, was the true heir to Messi and Ronaldo: an exciting attacker that would take the 2018 World Cup by storm. Neymar, meanwhile, has been injured for a significant part of his time in France. The end of the 2017-18 campaign was spent injured with a metatarsal fracture. A large part of the 2018-19 season was spent with a foot injury. In 2019-20, he has spent some time on the sidelines, but the curtailed season will leave him out of the public eye for a few more months.
PSG, having bought Neymar to win the Champions League, bowed out to Real Madrid in the last 16 in his first year at the club. This season, the Brazilian scored two of the three goals in the 3-2 aggregate win over Dortmund in the last 16. The irony is that their best chance of progressing in the league comes when a pandemic has hit. A gap of over five months between the last 16 and the remaining rounds will not do PSG any favours.
Neymar had it all set at Barcelona. For a player that looked to touch the stars when he first emerged, his career may be all pin-pointed to the decision to leave Barcelona. The Catalans, who went through significant financial and legal effort to bring the Brazilian to Nou Camp, have slowly unravelled in recent years too. Unravelled may seem like an overstatement, but the foundations are in place for Barcelona to slowly decline.
Dembélé’s arrival at Barcelona kick-started a host of injury problems that continue to this day; a hamstring injury has seen him nearly miss the season entirely, even with the pandemic. While only 23, questions over his attitude remain, and at this point it’s difficult to see how he will redeem himself at the club. For Coutinho, the pressure of the Nou Camp seemed to get to him, while there seemed no defined tactical role for him in the team. His best work has come when Messi is out of the side. While the Frenchman has been unlucky with his injury, Coutinho’s transfer seems more and more ill-advised by the day, born out of little tactical consideration. Loaned out to Bayern this season, the Germans are unlikely to take up the €120 million buy-out option.
And so he will return to Barcelona. Football has slowly shifted away from players like Coutinho, and yet there is a talented player in there. The Catalans want to move him on, but he is now sunk cost. He may have to be reintegrated in the squad. That points to another ticking time-bomb at Barcelona though – their wage budget is way over the 70% of revenue limit imposed by the league. Barcelona need to raise money – and they have sold players, leaving their squad thread-bare. More has to be done. Coutinho might yet end up loaned out again.
The resulting image of Neymar’s time in Paris may be his gaping expression as a thread-bare Manchester United knocked PSG out at home. Neymar, holding a crutch, was left in disbelief, spurring numerous memes. The look of disbelief is one that could define the butterfly effect caused by the Qatari desire to purchase one footballer. One player’s on the injury table, one player is in limbo and their club is in financial chaos. For what it’s worth, Neymar has sounded his interest to return to Barcelona every window. But his decision to leave Barcelona can’t be undone. Time’s arrow has marched on.
On May 7th 2019, Barcelona looked set to make the Champions League final. A 3-0 win at home in the first leg saw them hold the advantage as they travelled to Liverpool. But they squandered the lead, and by the 60th minute, the score was now 3-3. Barcelona still had an advantage, playing away from home. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s quick corner in the 79th minute, catching the Catalan defense napping, is now folk-lore. A 3-0 lead became 4-3, and Liverpool moved on to their second final in as many years, which they would win this time.
Barcelona’s first substitute of that night? Nelson Semedo was brought on for Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian watched on from the bench as the club he left in search of trophies and a dream knocked him out. Liverpool were no longer dependent on his magic. They may still come back for him this summer. But they would not be reliant on him. They have moved on, but Coutinho is now unable to move on. It’s cruel fate.
Neymar and Coutinho are both 28, separated by 4 months. Time is running for both Brazilians to ensure regret is not the overwhelming feeling from their respective transfers. Only time will tell whether it’s too late.
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