Neymar is one of the great ‘what if?’ players; his legacy is the worst transfer of all time

Neymar and the Al-Hilal badge
Neymar and the Al-Hilal badge

The Saudi Pro League is set to claim their latest big-name star, with Neymar on the verge of completing his transfer to Al-Hilal, where he will become the main man in a side that now also features Ruben Neves, Kalidou Koulibaly and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.

The £86m transfer, which conveniently covers PSG’s FFP issues, will see the Brazilian earn an eye-watering £129.4m per year, six times his already astronomical salary in Paris. A distracted media is reporting how much he will earn per day, hour, minute and second instead of focusing on the very real issues of his new paymasters.

It has been reported that no European club outside of his former club Barcelona were remotely interested in signing him, and that was only on loan. It says a lot when even Chelsea and Todd Boehly’s Football Manager file are reluctant to get involved.

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It helps paint a picture of how disastrous Neymar’s still-world record transfer to PSG in 2017 has been for all almost all parties, including the football transfer market itself, which has lost sight of all sense of value and meaning.

There have been some truly awful transfers in the six years since, but does this deal go down as the worst of them all?

That isn’t to say Neymar didn’t light up Paris at times, but his très expensive signing – alongside Kylian Mbappe’s – six years ago was supposed to make them a super-heavyweight in European football. It was also the true beginning of PSG’s ‘Hollywood’ era, which descended into a sub-par drama despite an all-star cast.

The nouveau riche Qatari-owned club flexed their muscles and took a world superstar from Barcelona, one of European football’s old wealth and traditional big boys. A new world order was the plan but it has only led to PSG being more lost than ever before.

The paying of his apparently unattainable £198m buy-out clause was a power play and one that broke the transfer market. It meant that every other player’s ‘value’ increased and made the market even more top-heavy. Just look at some of the money being spent on average players by big clubs today.

So what did PSG get for the securing of their crown jewel? Not a whole lot in truth. Of course there was moments of utter brilliance, Neymar is after all one of the most talented players of his and any generation. The naked figures of 118 goals in 173 games are impressive.

Man Utd transfer target Neymar This was the man who took centre stage over Lionel Messi to spearhead Barcelona’s stunning 6-1 second-leg win over his new club months before. The man that Barca and many viewed as the successor to Messi’s crown. The Brazilian boy who should have been king.

Instead, his time in Paris was a story of injuries, attitude problems, partying, family drama and a lack of true success.

He played just 47% of available minutes in Ligue Un in his six seasons, and in the Champions League, the tournament PSG craved more than any other and which he was meant to deliver, he scored just two goals in the knock-outs, and they both came in a 2020 last-16 tie with Borussia Dortmund.

The club’s only European Cup final ended in a 1-0 defeat to Bayern Munich in 2020 and even then, it was played behind closed doors in a tournament turned into one-off knockout games. Not quite the glamour envisioned when Neymar, Mbappe and later Messi moved to the French capital.

The loss of Neymar kicked off Barca’s descent into shambles, with the money received squandered oh so badly on Phillippe Coutinho (scored against them while on loan at Bayern), Antoine Griezmann (now back to his best at Atletico Madrid) and Ousmane Dembele (who rather humorously is now at PSG replacing the Brazilian again).

Dreadful financial mismanagement elsewhere has left the club on the brink and pulling whatever ‘levers’ they can find, and ensured a loan deal was only possible to bring back their once-beloved Brazilian, who in truth has been angling for a return for years.

He never should have left; it was the point where his career went into decline when he was approaching his supposed peak years as a player.

The MSN trio almost certainly would have won another Champions League title, and while Neymar allegedly viewed a move to Paris and away from Messi’s shadow as his best bet of winning a Ballon d’Or, he only moved away from contention.

In his final three seasons with Barca, he came third twice and fifth once. Of the five awards while at PSG, he has come 12th, 16th and twice not been nominated (there was no 2020 award and 2023 is yet to be announced). Both team and individual glory dropped off significantly.

The same can be said for his Brazil career. While he is tied with Pele for most goals ever (77) and will break that record, he has achieved very little in the way of trophies, which is the true mark of greatness for the national team.

A 2013 Confederations Cup and 2016 Olympics (it is an under-23 tournament with three over-age exceptions) were nothing special but he has won nothing since his move to Paris. He missed the 2019 Copa America win through injury, lost the 2021 final to Argentina and has never played in a World Cup semi-final. It is of course not all his fault, but as the star player, he has simply not delivered.

Where does the last six years and now a move to a glorified retirement league at 31 leave Neymar? Sadly for all his talents and achievements, as one of the great ‘What If?’ players in recent memory.

He has been playing from a young age but if he had taken care of himself better and been given better advice, he would still be a megastar for any of the biggest clubs in Europe.

The player to which he is most compared, Ronaldinho, left Europe at the same age too, but he had won it all at international, club and individual level. He also made the romantic move back to his homeland, rather then the greedy move to Saudi Arabia.

Ronaldinho’s legacy also includes that of reviving Barcelona and being the most joyful player to watch in recent history.

Neymar’s legacy? An amazing all-time talent not fully utilised. He is unlikely to be remembered as one of the all-time greats like he could and should have been. Frankly, it’s all just a bit sad.