If there’s one lesson we can take from the summer transfer window, it’s this: Like Gerard Piqué, we don’t know anything.
In a move that seemed unbelievable until now, Barcelona have announced that Neymar has asked to leave the club, and Paris Saint-Germain appear ready to pay his buyout clause with a bid of €222 million. According to reports, the 25-year-old Brazilian superstar will make an annual salary of €30 million for five years.
The signing is the biggest blow to the established order of world soccer we’ve seen this decade. Barcelona — along with Real Madrid — has been the team a player goes to once he becomes a superstar. The players flourish in their early 20s with Arsenal or Liverpool or Valencia — and then their club cashes in, and Barca or Madrid get their peak years. Neymar is leaving Barcelona with his trajectory still pointing up.
While that’s all true, the deal is for so much money: The transfer fee more than doubles the previous world record; Neymar’s dad, who’s also his acting agent, could get as much as €40 million in fees; and the total cost of the deal could be closer to €450 million. So it’s nearly impossible to contextualize the move by any modern standard. PSG is essentially funded by the Qatari government, and in comparative sporting terms, they might as well have more money than God. In the face of that, what’s Barcelona supposed to do?
According to Spanish law, every player has to have a buyout clause in his contract. Typically, when a vital player signs a deal, the club will push the buyout clause so high that it might as well not even exist. This is basically what Barcelona did with Neymar — and PSG still paid the price.
So, what do they get? A phenomenal present, and an even better future. Neymar is already one of the 10 best players in the world, and at his peak, he’s come as close to breaking into the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly as anyone. He shoots, he dribbles, he moves the ball forward, he scores, he assists — he does everything an attacking player can do at elite or near-elite rates. He’s already incredibly famous, and he already has his own pair of Jordans. Like Kyrie Irving or Le’Veon Bell, he plays with an irresistible kind of carelessness that puts him apart from all of his contemporaries. Our bodies aren’t built to play soccer, but it’s hard to imagine Neymar doing anything else:
As Michael Caley and Mike Goodman discussed on the Double Pivot podcast, if you’re going to drop small-nation-GDP levels of money on a single player, Neymar is the guy: You’re getting his pre-peak, peak, and post-peak years. But who will his teammates be?
On the current PSG roster, six key players — Thiago Motta, Thiago Silva, Edinson Cavani, Blaise Matuidi, Ángel Di María, and Dani Alves — will be at least 30 after the end of the season. Among the younger core of the team, only a handful of players — Marco Verratti, Julian Draxler, Adrien Rabiot, Marquinhos, and Layvin Kurzawa — look like parts of a possible Champions League–winning team.
That’s the bet for Neymar: You go to PSG because it might turn you into a billionaire, but you also do it to turn them into a Champions League winner. Outside of last year’s haywire Monaco season, ever since Qatar Sports Investments completed its takeover, PSG wins Ligue 1 before the season even starts. As currently constructed, the club still doesn’t look destined for midweek glory, but the only way Neymar’s stint in Paris gets deemed a success is with a European title.
"Our aim is to make the club an institution respected around the world," PSG chairman Nasser al-Khelaifi said last year. "If we are going to make that happen, we have to win the Champions League."
However, buying Neymar might not even be the best way for PSG to accomplish that goal. There are plenty of great attackers, world-class midfielders, and commanding center backs that could’ve been had for the price of one Jordan-brand footballer. The move certainly weakens a direct competitor in Barcelona: They lose their successor to Messi, his departure immediately ages an already-aging team, and while they now have plenty to spend, the club’s recent transaction record doesn’t suggest that they’ll know what to do with it. But it really depends what PSG does next.
Which is where this all smashes up against reality: Normally, so much has to be leveraged and organized and preplanned to make a world-record signing. Soccer teams are rich, but they’re not multinational corporations. Except, PSG kind of is — and it’s impossible to disentangle this transfer from the chaotic politics of the Middle East. The club was both able and willing to pay so much more for a Neymar than any other athlete in recorded human history, and that makes it seem like they’re operating on a financial plane where concepts like "budgets" and "balance sheets" don’t matter. We’ve never seen something like this before, which means it could all suddenly end or it could be only the beginning.
The soccer world has changed. We just still don’t know how.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to a release clause; it is a buyout clause.