Barcelona and life without Neymar

April 5, 2017 - Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain - Neymar Jr during the Spanish League match between FC Barcelona and Sevilla FC in Barcelona, on April 5, 2017 (Photo by Miquel Llop/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)
Photo by Miquel Llop/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

The news has gradually trickled out over the past four days, leading to what now seems a foregone conclusion: Neymar will be leaving Barcelona for Paris St. Germain. It’s not official yet, of course. Deals have to be agreed between all parties involved, medicals have to be done, and all sorts of weird logistics have to be sorted out. Hell, Neymar hasn’t even left Barca’s U.S. preseason tour yet.

But as the days pass, and the reports go from “likely” to “95 percent” to “5,4,3,2…,” it’s beginning to feel like the drumroll right before the guillotine drops.

As far as specifics go, PSG is ready to trigger Neymar’s release clause price of €222 million (about $258.8 million U.S.) and he appears ready to accept it. On the Catalans’ end, ESPN sources claim that, after days of continual denial, the club will let Neymar choose his own fate (for what it’s worth, their hands are tied). It has been mostly radio silence from the man himself up to this point, though Le Parisien reported today that the Brazilian has informed some teammates of his imminent departure.

This isn’t only a peculiar move because it involves *arguably* the second best footballer in the world. That’s why it’s major news, sure. But this is rather a rare case in which a club’s fan base is largely split over whether losing such a player is even a negative at all. So why would any Barcelona fan be OK losing an all-timer to a continental rival? There are a few reasons.

Firstly, Neymar was brought to Barca from Santos in 2013 by ex-president Sandro Rosell, who many Cules credit for damaging the club’s reputation over the last half a decade. In addition to Rosell’s compromising business dealings and unforgivable personal vendettas, the messy Neymar transfer fiasco — that involved a severe misappropriation of funds — remains unresolved, still hanging over the club to this day. Rosell resigned as Barcelona president over the scandal in 2014 and is currently in prison for a separate money laundering crime. Fair or not, Neymar is forever linked to the disgraced boss in the eyes of many.

Don’t worry, there are football reasons, too.

At Barcelona, Neymar is a nonconformist. From the hair and the partying, to the dribbles and the grandstanding, the 25-year-old comes with his own Samba stamp. You can compare him to past Brazilians like Ronaldinho and Robinho, but as with those players, Neymar’s style dances to its own beat. Contrast this to the Xavi/Iniesta/Busquets fall-in-line types, who studiously memorized their Masia playbooks as children, and you can see where there might live a discrepancy.

In relation, there exists a stylistic gap between Barca’s tiki-taka idealists of the Pep Guardiola days and their nu-skool pragmatists of today. While former pieces like Pedro and David Villa snugly fit into the Guardiola attack model, Neymar bucks it. His 1-on-1 expertise relies on directness and isolation. This doesn’t necessarily mean it results in anything resembling humdrum football — he’s undeniably a joy to behold — but it does bring up a clash of procedure.

Which gets to the base conflict between Barca’s utopian dream and any objector, conscientious or not. In an ideal Blaugrana side, the individual is encouraged, even if subconsciously, to forfeit himself before a tried-and-true construct in where the team is the thorax and Lionel Messi is the stinger. Neymar, as a footballer, above all, is a beacon of individual expression. He floats with the ball at his feet, enchanting defenders and onlookers. He gets lost in the game, and we get lost in him.

His is a motif that, in theory, requires he be the focal point. We saw this last season, where Neymar was used, to much success, as Barca’s primary chance-creator. And while you’d be hard-pressed to convince any reasonable person that a Blaugrana attack steered by “MSN” isn’t truly compatible, that belies the point. With Neymar’s gravitational pull at right wing, the team simply looks and performs differently. For some, that’s enough to reject it — and him — altogether.

Barcelona, rather, have built a religion on collective expressionism. The quick passes, the intricate angles, the communal press — the comprehensiveness of it all. Though the style hasn’t been in full bloom since Pep or Tito Vilanova left, its grip on the way the club’s fans see them game is ever present. It makes any schism between Neymar and the fundamentalist edge of Barca’s fan base not all that shocking.

On yeah, Barcelona are also receiving €222 MILLION in this deal. It’s difficult for any party to be salty over an exchange that grants them enough dough to buy two Paul Pogbas. There is obvious trepidation regarding how this clearly inept group of Barca execs would squander such a load, but even so, cash rules, still don’t nothing move but the money.

So the question here isn’t, “Should Barca sell Neymar?” After all, the choice won’t be theirs. Instead, the only relevant question becomes, “If the unthinkable were to happen, could Barca be better off without Neymar?” On the surface, it’s obviously an absurd claim. Neymar has tallied 105 goals and 59 assists in 186 Blaugrana appearances and helped them to a treble just over two years ago. But enough people, both inside and outside of the club’s casted net, disagree on the matter that it has, rightly or wrongly, become a topic worthy of dissection. And with Neymar’s suitcase packed, it’s the new reality.

What no Cule is ready to admit today is that this transaction could ultimately be good for Neymar as well. Look, wanting to be The Head of your very own Voltron rather than a subdued star at a ready-made giant makes sense for a budding globo-brand like Neymar’s. This isn’t a case of the Brazilian thinking he can immediately turn PSG into Champions League winners as much as it is a power play toward the future. Anyone would be foolish to think he’s not aware of the gap between Messi and Edinson Cavani, or even Sergio Busquets and Thiago Motta.

The truth is, PSG have totes upon totes of large bills and a decent base on which to build something exceptional. It doesn’t hurt that a few of Neymar’s closest countrymen are already there as well. If the Brazilian wants to have a legacy project all his own, that would theoretically peak at the same time he does as a player, then it’s hard to deny this being the chance. Which isn’t to say that it’d be the smartest move for his career, fleeing the fruitfulness provided by Barca, and more specifically, “MSN.” But it does mean that the calculations check out.

For the majority of the past decade, FC Barcelona have trotted out the best footballer in the world. The fact that the club developed this player through its academy, thus never having to pay an exorbitant “release clause” or transfer fee, is a luxury that it earned. But it’s a luxury nonetheless. From this good fortune, however, emerged a club with suits and diehards who react to business dealings without much perspective and with a whole lot of privilege.

Unfortunately, you don’t get to sign Marco Verratti because of some obscure hegemonic superiority complex you’re harboring. Nor do you, as we’re seeing now, get to employ the two best footballers on Earth without occasional bouts of disruption.

Neymar looks like he’s leaving Catalunya for Paris. Barca will just have to make do with Lionel Messi and a couple hundred million euros.

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