It is understandable that Neymar’s transfer from Paris Saint-Germain to Al-Hilal is being viewed as a watershed moment in the Saudi Arabian football project. Signing a player of such calibre, still very much at the height of his game aged 31, would appear ominous for the rest of football, as the Saudi Pro League continues its charge to rival Europe as the best place to watch and play football across the globe.
Neymar has joined the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karin Benzema and N’Golo Kante, among plenty of others, in joining the league and there is no doubt that has made it instantly more recognisable. The Saudi Public Investment Fund’s impact and influence on football, and sport in general, is not going away, and the growth of the Pro League feels much more concrete and sustainable than a similar attempt in China some years ago. But there are many reasons why Europe remains the place to stay, watch and play.
Chiefly, before Al-Hilal began the process of signing Neymar, their attempt to sign his PSG teammate Kylian Mbappe, widely regarded as the world’s best player, was turned down. Saudi Arabian clubs are offering huge amounts in wages – Neymar himself is reportedly set to earn £2.5m a week – but Mbappe’s deal would have shattered anything else, with a £700m contract on the table for just one year before he makes his anticipated move to Real Madrid in 2024.
Had Mbappe signed, it would have been the first time a Saudi club had gone to a player at their very best and plucked him from a European club. The deal itself was worth a world record £259m to PSG. As it stands now, all of the elite players who have moved are at a crossroads or coming to the end of their careers. PSG have wanted to part ways with Neymar for quite some time, and even though his ability cannot be questioned, at the age he is, his injury record and perceived personality and attitude, meant that other top clubs in Europe weren’t interested.
PSG are trying to get away from their ‘Galactico’ era because, like Real Madrid before them, they have realised that an emphasis on star quality and massaging the biggest egos is not conducive to success. All the best teams are built on a collective unit now; a huge part of Neymar’s attraction is his name, brand and the impact of having him in the team. That doesn’t really benefit PSG anymore like it did once. It is exactly what the Saudi Pro League needs, though; perhaps this is a move that makes sense.
It isn’t that much different to when he made the switch to the Parc des Princes in 2017. That deal has also permanently changed the football landscape, and it is hard to say for the better. He cost the club £200m, the release clause in his contract at Barcelona; it was a deal that shattered the previous world record, £89m for Paul Pogba to return to Manchester United, and that made it doomed to become one of the worst transfers in history, regardless of what happened.
That deal has inflated prices everywhere over the past six seasons. PSG wanted Neymar to spearhead their charge towards European domination, months after he had helped inspire Barcelona to one of the greatest comebacks against them in the Champions League, but one final in that time means they haven’t come close to achieving their goal. Neymar moved to escape Lionel Messi’s shadow and win the Ballon d’Or, but he has moved further away from that target by not playing at Camp Nou, and Messi ironically joined him Paris. The pair had great chemistry on the pitch and the Brazilian played his best football alongside Messi and doing so for longer at Barcelona would surely have only enhanced his chances of winning that award.
The arguments for Neymar being a success relative to his price tag were always going to be difficult to make. But the fact it didn’t yield either major target, and he wasn’t always reliably fit and available, plunge them signing into the conversation as one of the worst ever. It wasn’t that Neymar didn’t impress at PSG, his quality shone through and he remains one of this generation’s greatest players, the poster boy and a cultural phenomenon in Brazil and somebody who perhaps doesn’t get the wider credit he deserves. But he was set up to fail by the sheer weight of that transfer fee, which has made the transfer market a much more volatile place ever since.
PSG can now draw a line under a misguided transfer with a recoup of around £70m, Neymar will enjoy the adulation of a new and growing football fan base and the Saudi Pro League has its big name face for a few years to come.
But there is no getting away from the fact that Neymar had an impossible task justifying himself at PSG and, in the end, fell well short.