Neymar threw away his chance to become a Barcelona great! Saudi Arabia transfer the only option after world-record failure at PSG

Comments (0)
Neymar PSG GFX
A potential homecoming at Camp Nou was nothing more than a pipe dream for the Brazilian, who is now set to wind down his career in the Middle East

Neymar's first introduction to Barcelona supporters came way back in December 2011, when he lined up against them for Santos in the Club World Cup final. The contest was billed as a showdown between the 19-year-old and Lionel Messi, which then-Santos head coach Muricy Ramalho did his best to lean into.

"Before long he'll be the best in the world," Ramalho said at a pre-match press conference. "The two are similar, but Neymar is a bit more special. His style alternates the direction of the ball as he carries it, while Messi dribbles more in a straight line. Neymar is unpredictable. You don't find anyone in the world who does what he can with the ball."

Ramalho was left red-faced as Messi scored twice during a comprehensive 4-0 win for Barcelona that saw Neymar reduced to little more than a spectator. But the teenager, who had also been dubbed 'the next Pele', would get his chance to work alongside Messi at Camp Nou some 18 months later.

Barca paid €57 million (£51m/$65m) to sign Neymar, who had also been a target for Real Madrid, and that proved to be a bargain fee. He was electrifying throughout his time in Catalunya, and struck up an excellent partnership with Messi that helped deliver a host of major honours.

But Neymar never overtook Messi as the best player in the world, and that's what ultimately led him to accept a world-record transfer to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017. He wanted to step out of the Argentine's shadow and put himself in a position to win his first Ballon d'Or.

Neymar failed to see the bigger picture. He already had an ego, but it became overinflated after PSG's staggering €220m (£190m/$241m) bid. Barca provided everything Neymar needed to achieve his lofty career ambitions, and he was loved by supporters. He traded all of that in for what he perceived as the fast-track route to greatness in France.

Inevitably, it hasn't worked out for Neymar at PSG. After six seasons of frustration and controversy, he is set to complete a move away from Parc des Princes - with Barca originally thought to be his preferred destination. But even if they could afford to re-sign Neymar, he didn't deserve a second chance. Instead, Saudi Arabian outfit Al-Hilal have struck a deal for the 31-year-old, and the fact is, a move to the Middle East was the only realistic option on the table - which speaks volumes about how far he has fallen.

  1. Neymar's Barca legacy

    Neymar's Barca legacy

    Neymar spent four seasons at Barca, recording an impressive 105 goals and 76 assists across 186 appearances. He proved himself as an elite performer in a star-studded side, and got the Camp Nou crowd off it's feet regularly with his dazzling displays of skill in the final third.

    Alongside Messi and Luis Suarez, Neymar formed one third of arguably the best attacking trident in modern football history, with 'MSN' spearheading Barca's surge to the treble under Luis Enrique in 2014-15.

    Neymar scored 39 goals that season, including one in the Blaugrana's Champions League final victory over Juventus. In the following campaign, Luis Enrique shifted the Brazil international into a central role, which allowed him to unlock his full creative potential as Barca clinched another domestic double.

    After seeing Neymar score four in a 5-2 home win over Rayo Vallecano in La Liga, Luis Enrique famously said: "Defenders only have two choices when facing him: concede a penalty or let him score. In one word, he was breath-taking."

    A third successive Copa del Rey triumph saved what was otherwise a disappointing 2016-17 season for Barca, but Neymar continued to thrive on an individual level - most notably inspiring the team's incredible 'remontada' against PSG in the Champions League.

    The French side won the first leg of the last-16 tie 4-0, only to lose 6-1 at Camp Nou, with Neymar scoring a sublime free-kick and penalty before setting up Sergi Roberto for the winning goal deep into stoppage-time. It was the highlight of Neymar's entire Barca career and the moment he truly put himself in the same bracket as Messi.

    Neymar went on to score his 100th goal for Barca in their Copa del Rey final win against Alaves, and the foundations were in place for him to etch his name into the club's Hall of Fame. But then PSG came calling, and he spectacularly failed his first true test of loyalty.

    The relationship between Neymar and Barcelona fans was irreversibly damaged when he departed for Parc des Princes, as some Culers even went so far as to burn shirts with his name on after the transfer was confirmed. Neymar gave the Blaugrana plenty of memorable moments, but his exit marked the beginning of a major downturn in fortunes for the club - and his legacy has been complicated by the perceived betrayal.

  2. Injury nightmare in Paris

    Injury nightmare in Paris

    Neymar's first year at PSG is, statistically speaking, still the best of his entire spell in France. He managed 32 goal contributions in Ligue 1 and scored six in seven Champions League appearances - which went some way to justifying his status as the most expensive player of all-time. He helped PSG land three domestic trophies, including the league title - which they clinched with five matches to spare. But Neymar also sat out a grand total of 21 matches through injury.

    He broke the metatarsal in his right foot in a 3-0 victory over Marseille in February 2018, which ruled him out of the second leg of PSG's last-16 Champions League clash with Real Madrid. Unai Emery's side crashed out of the competition in his absence, and Neymar sat out the remainder of the season.

    The mercurial attacker rushed back to play for Brazil at the World Cup in Russia, but he wasn't quite the same. The Selecao lost to Belgium in the quarter-finals, and although Neymar still managed to make it into the Team of the Tournament, he spent most of his time on the ground after exaggerating the effect of tackles. Neymar always had a penchant for theatricality, but it appeared that he was starting to avoid physical contact entirely rather than simply trying to draw fouls - and the trend continued in the 2018-19 campaign.

    PSG had to make do without Neymar for 29 games as he struggled with a series of niggling muscle issues before fracturing his metatarsal once again. He still managed a respectable haul of 23 goals and 13 assists across all competitions, but wasn't on the pitch enough to make a telling impact - which allowed Kylian Mbappe to move into centre stage.

    Mbappe has been the driving force behind PSG's domestic success over the past four years, not Neymar. The Frenchman certainly has his faults, but he's looked after himself physically to ensure he's always available.

    The same cannot be said for Neymar, as his fitness issues have provided an unwanted side-show. PSG supporters have seen him sit out the business end of the season year after year, and his party-boy lifestyle away from the pitch has done little to silence questions over his commitment.

    It was no surprise when Neymar suffered ankle ligament damage again in March. PSG now know for certain that they will never be able to rely on the Brazil forward, which is why they have been working to find a willing buyer over the summer.

  3. The last player Xavi needed
    Getty Images

    The last player Xavi needed

    At various intervals during Neymar's time in Paris, he pushed for a move back to Barcelona. It didn't take long for him to regret his transfer to PSG, but undoing his mistake has proven impossible.

    Barca were plunged into financial turmoil shortly after losing Neymar, mainly because they failed to spend the money raised by his sale effectively. Over €300m (£259m/$329m) was splashed out on Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann - all of whom flopped spectacularly.

    Huge contracts were given to new signings and core squad members such as Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, which eventually led to Barca's wage bill spiralling out of control. Joan Laporta has been trying to balance the books since his return as club president in 2021, even letting Messi go to try and expedite the process, but there is still a long way to go.

    Head coach Xavi, who played with Neymar at Camp Nou towards the end of his illustrious playing career, was only able to register summer signing Ilkay Gundogan two days before Barca's 2022-23 La Liga opener against Getafe - after the activation of another financial lever.

    These are turbulent times for Barca, despite their title success last term, as they can no longer compete with their rivals for their best players on the market. They have no choice but to focus on free agents and cut-price deals, while continuing to clear out some of the first-team deadwood.

    Bringing Neymar back to the club would have undone all the work Laporta and Xavi have done over the past two years. PSG might have been willing to let him go for a reduced fee, but the Brazilian still commands one of the largest salary packages in the game.

    Neymar could also have, potentially, ruined the harmony that has only recently been restored to the Barca dressing room. Xavi was reportedly wary of that possibility, which is why the club appeared to distance itself from their former talisman.

    Barca need players willing to work together towards the same common goal while putting the team above their own personal desires. Neymar has never done that at PSG, and after entering his thirties, it's unlikely that he's going to change his ways.

  4. Premier League door shut

    Premier League door shut

    Neymar had also been strongly linked with a move to the Premier League, with Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal all mooted as potential landing spots. But one by one, those avenues were closed off.

    When United initially emerged as potential suitors in May, Sir Alex Ferguson's former assistant Rene Meulensteen sounded a warning to current manager Erik ten Hag. "I have my reservations about it because he’s obviously a high-calibre player but he's also a prima donna," he told talkSPORT.

    United eventually strengthened their attack with the additions of Rasmus Hojlund and Mason Mount, while Arsenal have brought in Kai Havertz and City have decided they don't need any extra support upfront for goal machine Erling Haaland.

    Chelsea looked the most likely to launch a genuine bid for Neymar amid reports that co-owner Todd Boehly had been in direct contact with the forward last month, while new Blues boss Mauricio Pochettino coached Neymar at PSG in 2021-22, and once described him as an "easy" player to manage. However, the Argentine made it clear that he does not want a reunion with Neymar. According to the Evening Standard, Pochettino does not think the PSG outcast is the right profile for the style of play he wants to implement at Chelsea.

    There was a time when Neymar heading to the Premier League would have been a tantalising prospect. But now, all the top sides recognise that he is damaged goods.

  5. 'Biggest failure in the history of football'
    (C)Getty Images

    'Biggest failure in the history of football'

    "It's difficult to defend Neymar for all the things he does besides playing football. I've been with him in Europe twice. We talked and I explained: ‘The God of football gave you the gift. What you do complicates it'." The late Brazilian icon Pele openly criticised Neymar in an interview with Folha de Sao Paulo in 2018, and his assessment remains accurate to this day.

    Neymar is a special footballer, the kind that only comes around once in a generation. But he hasn't done nearly enough to maximise his unique talents.

    He's still a game-changer when fully fit and firing - that much was proven when he scored an outrageous solo goal for Brazil in their 2022 World Cup quarter-final clash against Croatia. In stoppage-time at the end of the first half of extra-time, Neymar worked his way into the box by playing two clever give-and-go's, before rounding the goalkeeper and steering the ball home in emphatic fashion. Brazil needed something magical to break through Croatia's stubborn rear-guard and Neymar provided it. The Selecao couldn't build on it and ended up losing on penalties, but Neymar was able to hold his head up high.

    He is a master dribbler, and he sees openings that other players don't. He can create chances out of nothing and more often than not, has the finishing touch or decisive final pass to match his ingenuity on the ball. But he has wasted the best years of his career. In 2017, Neymar had the world at his feet at Barcelona, and was approaching his prime at 25. He threw away his chance to join Pele and Messi as a true legend of the game by joining PSG.

    It's very difficult to argue that Neymar's spell at Parc des Princes has been anything less than a complete disaster. Indeed, RMC Sport journalist Daniel Riolo said in January: "Do we realise that Neymar, in terms of transfer and salary, is the biggest failure in the history of football? I can't think of a bigger failure for what he cost, it's horrible."

    There is nothing left for Neymar in Europe. PSG wanted him gone, and every other top club distanced themselves from him. And so now, he is destined to join the ever-growing list of big names to chase riches in Saudi Arabia.

    It has been reported that Neymar will sign a two-year contract at Al-Hilal worth €302m (£260m/$330m), which puts him up there with Cristiano Ronaldo - who kicked off the exodus to the Middle East with his lucrative switch to Al-Nassr in the winter transfer window.

    Neymar will be 33 by the time his deal expires, and will surely have no hope of making Brazil's 2026 World Cup squad after so long away from the elite stage at club level. He might be setting himself up for life financially, but he's also guaranteeing an early retirement.

    It could have all been so different if Neymar had placed the same faith in Barca as they did in him all those years ago.