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In Neymar, PSG Are Buying a New Generation of Fans

The And-1 soccer star is set to shake up world football’s hierarchy

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Neymar said goodbye to his Barcelona teammates Wednesday, and is all but certain to play his soccer at Paris Saint-Germain in France’s Ligue 1.

As to why the Brazilian would ever want to leave a team that featured both Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez -- and challenges for every available piece of silverware, every year -- I ask this in response: When’s the last time you watched the final eight minutes of Barcelona’s 2017 Champions League quarterfinal against PSG?

Eight minutes. That’s how long it took the world’s best team—at the time, guys—to show us just what the world’s best team looks like. Barcelona beat PSG, 6-1 (6-5 on aggregate), scoring a dizzying three goals in the final eight minutes -- a period during which Messi was more or less absent, making the scene of the night, with a reader’s remove, seem like equal parts relief and triumph.

I don’t have a good video of those last eight minutes just by themselves, but I do have this one highlight reel set to noisy progressive house, in which Neymar enters the stadium with his bandana tied like Tupac, to the side. That’s really when we should’ve known.

Watching these clips you can see how entirely Neymar does whatever comes to mind. These are things players are told not to do, like dribble out of the back or directly into a swath of three defenders. He is in a continual state of self-expression. The flicks, the stepovers, the backward heel passes; he plays with one finger on speed control and the other on the trick stick, looking to unlock the game by trying every possible combination. I can’t explain to my casual soccer fan friends why N’Golo Kanté breaking up attacks and playing metronomic passes across Chelsea’s central midfield is awe-inspiring, but Neymar throwing everything at a problem until something sticks is an explanation unto itself.

And he threw everything at that four-goal deficit. The sequence that led to the free kick that we don’t discuss nearly as much as we should was his second chased-down volley in as many minutes. He converted the penalty to even things up on aggregate; he found Sergi Roberto over the top to complete the greatest sporting comeback of all time, probably.

Winning supersedes all (morally sound) else and there’s no "i" in team and blah blah blahhhhhhpfffffftttttttfartttttttt. But imagine that it wasn’t your name rumbling through the rafters and spilling out onto the pitch at full time. Imagine it was the name of the guy who converted the penalty you won, and imagine things like this had been happening since you arrived from Santos with preposterous hair, save for that stretch in the 2013-14 season when you were too incredible to ignore.

Messi, by dint of being a central figure, has a central figure’s gravitational pull and inviolable plot armor. You—by which I mean we, who’ll watch whatever game is on beIN sports— assume that whatever the outcome, regardless of whether Messi was a part of the play or on the field at all, he had something to do with it. Neymar—or someone close to him— has confessed that he would like to have those problems for himself.

Which brings us to the pending new transfer world record, in excess of the last two transfer world records combined. The most recent was the €105 million Manchester United paid to recoup Paul Pogba from Juventus. Neymar’s €222 million price tag smashes it to teeny, tiny, "I can’t believe y’all complained about this, soccer is easily the best and most ridiculous sport" pieces. He’ll also be making a reported $681,040 per week, more money than even Messi. And this is probably a low estimate, considering image rights tend to bump wages up by as much as 20 percent.

And for that, PSG is getting a player as magnetic in his jersey as he is out of it, as good with his back to goal as he is at Instagram — a player with his own Jordan brand basketball shoe. If PSG general manager Jean-Claude Blanc wants to fashion "the first great club of the digital era," this is where you empty the bag. They’re not buying just Neymar, they’re buying a new generation of fans, who place just as much weight on the elastico before the goal as the goal itself.

It bears repeating that the best players, the ones at the top of the top, go to the elite teams that transcend cultural variance -- the teams whose jerseys you see on the street. Real Madrid. Bayern Munich. Juventus. And yes, of course, of course: Barcelona.

From that nodal point then, Neymar, the biggest star of his generation, is gambling that people will follow him to a second-tier league without much competition. Barcelona can measure themselves against Madrid via any of the thousand times they play each other throughout the year, and each time, even if it’s scoreless, the game is an event. Bayern Munich have Borussia Dortmund and (now) RB Leipzig. It’s difficult for the average viewer to care about anything PSG is doing until the knockout stages of the Champions League.

Of course with such obscene money swirling around a single player, on the back of a deal he didn’t force, but definitely nudged through, Neymar opens himself up to the harsh indifference of the punditry that surrounds this sort of thing. There will be general incredulity about the price (€222 million?), what the sum could be used for in the abstract (a Disney resort on the moon), and how it could realistically be used on something better, or smarter (for 222 million you could buy these four players). And that’s before the price is wielded against the player himself, who just happened to sign a contract with a hefty buyout clause that was included only because players legally have to be for sale at some price.

All of these critiques will be a certain kind of fair, and we won’t really know if any of this worked until next spring, when PSG are back in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. (I’ll go out on a thick, sturdy limb here and say that they’ve got Ligue 1 sewed up.) For now, we’ll just say that "Neymar" looks really tight on that navy home strip. Because it really does.