For one, the sheer improbability of the move happening, or seeming improbability, as recently as last summer, when the then 24-year-old forward signed an extension that would have kept him with the Catalan club through 2021, when he would be 29 and Messi 34.
The trio – Neymar, Messi, Suarez – were the heart of Barca’s success, and the key to keeping Messi happy was keeping him surrounded with his fellow stars.
But there were hints, even then, that it couldn’t all be the perfect fairy tale it had seemed in years past.
Perhaps the first sign should’ve come in how Neymar excelled when Messi sat. Three goals in three games. Ten goals in nine games. When Messi sat, Neymar carried the team.
Perhaps another sign could have come even earlier when Neymar finished third in the race for a coveted Ballon d’Or two years ago—a prize ultimately given to his teammate, Messi, who’s now won four of them, in addition to earning a nomination for a further two.
Or perhaps we could look at least to last March’s Champions League match against none other than Neymar’s new club, Paris Saint-Germain. In less than eight minutes, Barca scored three times to come storming back. At the center of all three goals was Neymar (including the last, on which he notched his Champions League-leading eighth assist)—yet it was Messi who was carried off the pitch, the triumphant hero, not Neymar.
After the aforementioned match, a reporter asked Neymar about Messi’s future with the squad. “Don’t worry,” he replied, “I am sure Messi will stay.” No one inquired as to whether or not Neymar would stay, certainly not after he signed his lucrative extension last summer—nor did he bring it up.
It’s clear that though Neymar had repeatedly passed up chances to discuss how happy he was with Barca, the squad wasn’t in any way prepared for him actually leaving.
That isn’t entirely new – after all, Barca’s lost a litany of stars over the years, including Bernd Schuster, Michael Laudrup, Romario, Luis Figo, and Ronaldo, just as they’ve gained stars swiped away from other clubs. Transfer intrigue is, after all, just part of the game.
Still, it feels as if they were uniquely unprepared for this.
It feels as though their chase of Philippe Coutinho was never as a replacement for Neymar, but rather to play alongside him and to offer additional flexibility on the pitch. Now, though, that option has gone. (To say nothing of how likely it is, or isn’t, that Barca has a real shot at Coutinho beside. It’s also clear that Coutinho plays best at a position already a strength for Barca – left midfield – where Andres Iniesta is already entrenched. Calling him a potential Neymar replacement is wishful thinking at best.)
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that €600 million might have been a better point for that transfer fee, as PSG is clearly willing to pay €222 million. But in that case, would Neymar have even agreed?
It appears clear he wanted his freedom and flexibility when he re-upped last summer, and €222 million was a high enough price to both lull Barca into thinking they had their man for the long term and allow Neymar to set records in leaving, even as it wasn’t so high as to make him truly unavailable.
No, for me, the likely consequences of this move may be felt less on the pitch (though there will certainly be ramifications there as well) and far more in the boardroom and in Barca staffing.
As ESPN FC reports:
“Former Barca presidential candidate Agustí Benedito claims to have built up sufficient numbers of FC Barcelona socios to meet the requirements in the club statutes for a “censure vote,” the kind of action that, if successful, tends to mean the end for a president or his board.”
Should such action occur—and I’m partial to believe it will, as it seems quite clear this is an organizational-shaking move—this could mark a turning point in who pulls the levers at Camp Nou.
It also implies that however Neymar’s transfer fee is reinvested is less likely to actually help the squad than appear to help the squad – the kind of move that pleases members of the board far more than actually helps the team.
Last season, failing to win Copa del Rey was a disappointment. What happens if this year’s squad fails to match even that level of achievement? After all, with Neymar, Barca notched a treble two years ago; that level of success is expected at Camp Nou.
What if Barca only wins La Liga – or fails even that? Will heads roll?
How did they not see this coming?