The saga is over: Neymar will be playing his football in Ligue 1 for the foreseeable future. And with the completion of the move the speculation has now shifted. Who will Barça sign to replace him? How much will Coutinho/Dembelé/Mbappé cost? Where will Liverpool/Borussia Dortmund/Monaco turn to invest the fortune they stand to collect? The transfer market domino effect will no doubt be quickly felt and extensive in reach.
But there are concerns afoot other than who will buy whom with this latest wave of Arab oil wealth. Concerns that run beyond the end of this most opulent of transfer windows and do not limit themselves solely to the moneyed elite of Europe’s top-five leagues.
Since Brazil last won World Cup 15 years ago in 2002 there have been three editions of football’s showpiece event. In that period, all three winners and two of three beaten finalists have hailed from Western Europe. Those five countries, between them, account for just 275.3 million of the world’s seven and a half billion people, but their footballing dominance has become near total.
That relatively tiny geographical area is home to all of the planet’s most celebrated club competitions, all of the finest players and all of the greatest tactical masterminds. It is a trend that will only continue to strengthen the more time that passes.
For players from those countries, this is clearly a huge advantage. Without leaving the comfort of their homeland they get to pit themselves, week in and week out, against the best world football has to offer. And this, of course, has a knock-on effect for their national teams.
Each of those three World Cup winners, Italy, Spain and Germany, has had a core group of players based around one or two of the biggest clubs in their home league. Players who know each other’s games inside out, who may even have come through the youth ranks together, and have formed personal bonds that run far deeper than those that can be cultivated whilst on international duty.
Italy had Buffon, Zambrotta, Cannavaro, and Camoranesi who had spent the previous few seasons together at Juventus, as well the wonderfully complementary central midfield duo of Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo, who both strutted their stuff in the red and black of Milan.
Spain possessed the infamously well-drilled Barcelona contingent of Piqué, Puyol, Busquets, Iniesta, Xavi and Pedro, backed up by the Real Madrid trio of Casillas, Ramos and Alonso.
Germany, finally, could count on the almost telepathic relationships formed over the years between Bayern Munich club-mates Neuer, Lahm, Boateng, Schweinsteiger, Müller and Kroos.
For nations from outside Western Europe there is no such luxury. Argentina, the only non-EU side to reach the final at the last three World Cups, fielded 14 players from 10 different clubs in the 2014 final.
The story is similar for all South American nations. Their best players are spread across the world, taking their talents to where the pay is best and the competition is strongest.
Argentina’s finest are no longer found at River Plate or Boca Juniors and Uruguay’s top players do not play for Nacional or Peñarol for more than a couple seasons at the start of their careers.
Likewise, Brazil can no longer base their side around a strong core from Botafogo, Santos or Flamengo, as they did from the 50s through to the late 80s. In the last Seleção squad for a competitive fixture, manager Tite picked 23 players from 20 different clubs.
With Neymar’s move to Paris, however, a Brazilian international backbone has begun to form at a club on the other side of the Atlantic. As well as the new world-record signing, PSG’s staring XI will likely include Dani Alves, Marquinhos and Thiago Silva, all important parts of Brazil’s squad for 2018.
Of the three only Silva has not been a consistent starter since Tite took the reins, but it will be difficult to break up their partnership if he and Marquinhos have a productive season together in the French capital. It also makes you wonder whether Dani Alves knew something we did not when he chose to continue his career in Paris rather than Manchester.
Tite has already spoken to the Brazilian media about the transfer and told TV channel Esporte Interativo that, “Looking at it yes, I will not lie, I think it is good for the Seleção. When you can make these connections from players who play together every week, who know each other on the field, that makes it easier.”
Fitness permitting, it will likely be the first time that a Brazil manager will select four players from the same club for a World Cup since Sebastião Lazaroni took five from Vasco Da Gama to Italia ’90.
This spine is still not as fully formed as those of Italy, Spain or Germany at the time of their wins, but it is a start. There will also be the double acts of Coutinho and Firmino from Liverpool, Casemiro and Marcelo from Real Madrid and Gabriel Jesus and Fernandinho from Manchester City.
As well as those three other internationals, PSG have a Brazilian (or Brazil-born, at least) support cast of Thiago Motta and Lucas Moura. Though Motta has switched international allegiances to Italy and Moura will almost certainly not feature in the squad in Russia, they too will aid Neymar’s adaptation to his new environment.
At PSG, Neymar will be the lead man and will be surrounded by his friends and international colleagues. He will presumably be happier in this situation than he was in Catalonia, and a happy Neymar is a dangerous Neymar.
The desire to be around more of his compatriots, it seems, played a significant part in the decision to leave Barcelona for Paris. In the months leading up to Neymar’s departure the Catalan giants were linked to two of their attacker’s international team-mates, Lucas Lima and Paulinho, who were surely sought out at Neymar’s behest. There are, without doubt, players of superior technical quality currently on the market that Barça could have gone after instead.
Ligue 1 is also undoubtedly less physically demanding than La Liga. The Seleção star will be able to coast at points and Unai Emery may even choose to rest him on occasion, with the challenge from Monaco this year set to be diminished by the club’s fire sale. Barcelona could not afford to do the same as last year’s title battle with Real Madrid went down to the wire.
So, Neymar will arrive in Russia fresh and happy, having spent the season living and playing alongside at least three of his fellow Brazil internationals. A club backbone is no guarantee of success (just ask Roy Hodgson) but it will certainly help far more than it hinders. Tite must be grinning like the Chesire Cat.