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Can Barcelona Save the House of Neymar?

Can Barcelona Save the House of Neymar?

Wednesday, 10 July, 2019 - 06:00
Neymar has become a monetised public persona. Illustration: David Lyttleton
London - Barney Ronay
For English nobles during the reign of Henry VIII the news that the king was coming to visit was a sure sign of impending ruin. In return for the honour of his company you could expect to see your house, farmland and local sewerage system trashed, pillaged and fatally bunged up, the royal party only moving on once all in its sights had been safely devastated.

During one nationwide procession in 1541 Henry stopped briefly at Hatfield and in the course of a “spectacular hunt” murdered 200 deer, a company of swans, two boats-full of assorted river birds and a trawler’s worth of fish. So yeah, cheers for that. Now, on my braves. We ride to Welwyn Garden City! It’s almost lunchtime.

All of which is of course a lead-in to any consideration of the current state of Neymar, another entity who travels with his own destructive heat; and a player whose chance of a move back to Barcelona seems to have sharpened this week if the news-leaks are anything to go by.

This is more than a just a human-scale move. How much would it cost these days to relocate the entire House of Neymar? Five years ago Barcelona spent €300,000 flying out Neymar’s core hangers-on via private jet to witness his unveiling.

Since then Neymar’s basic entourage has, we hear, swollen to at least 30. According to a recent article by the Portuguese journalist Marcus Alves even the brief trip back to Brazil for treatment on his ankle injury required the hiring of a football pitch-sized estate complete with private plane hangar. Any return to the Camp Nou would take in the full weight of that Neymar-industrial complex: Neymar’s hairdresser, Neymar’s photographer, Neymar’s town planner, his hat-blocker, his chimney sweep.

And yet something is stirring. There was even a report in midweek that Neymar would “go on strike during Paris Saint-Germain’s tour of China” in order to force his own exit. It is hard to know where to go with this sentence. You can stare at it, pondering the entities involved, decoding the full weight of their awfulness, qualities that could perhaps only be amplified by the suggestion Neymar is planning to do these things dressed as Jimmy Savile, or while simultaneously beheading a kestrel.

His skills and his heritage have instead come to represent something else; the co-opting of grace and beauty
What is certain is that a supreme footballer, with a talent that still carries glimpses of something divine, has become a kind of sporting-commercial absurdity. What is the point of Neymar? And can he still be rescued?

And yes, rescued from a life of pleasure, wealth and relentless garlands; but rescued all the same. Aged 27 a footballer made from feathers and sherbet and gold leaf has become a deeply irritating superstar. In St Petersburg at the last World Cup it was startling to see the degrading of his on-field persona, the same player who was so charming four years previously behaving like a spoilt nine-year-old berating the local oompa loompas.

Worse though, and more concerning for the brand – think, always, of the brand – Neymar also feels oddly irrelevant. For a while his choices have seemed to come from something other than pure sport. And sport has begun to bite back. In the last two seasons Neymar has scored 51 goals in 58 games for PSG, a sustained run of form that no one, not even Neymar, really seems to care about. A grand talent is being expressed, but pointlessly.

In his absence this week Brazil beat Argentina 2-0 in their Copa América semi-final. They were a little lucky at times. But a front line of Gabriel Jesus, Everton and Roberto Firmino was full of hard running and incisive when it mattered. And five years on from that 7-1 trauma in the same stadium, Neymar having died nobly on his stretcher in Fortaleza the week before, the star No 10 didn’t really feel like a significant absence. Sport is relentlessly hungry. We make new stories, new stars. This is a good thing.

No surprise then that the move to Barcelona is gaining more traction. There is nothing here that isn’t macro-managed, just as “Neymar” is more machine than man these days, a most superbly monetised public persona. Whatever choices he has made are driven not by personality flaws or bad apples in the entourage, but by the forces that surround him, for which he has become a cypher.

The 11-year deal with Nike runs out in 2020, threatened perhaps by serious, unproven accusations of rape and assault. But presumably Neymar can still fall back on the support of Panasonic, Red Bull, Santander, Volkswagen, Mentos, Castrol, Unilever, McDonald’s, Gillette, Listerine mouthwash, Police sunglasses, Lupo pants, Drakkar Noir perfume, Heliar car batteries and of course Tenys Pe, whom he has vowed to transform into “the world’s No 1 foot deodorant”. There is even a Neymoji phone graphic to convey the emotion of Neymarness. But what is that feeling? A sense, perhaps, of something lost along the way.

It is a part of football’s basic resilience that you can coat it in this kind of industrial-scale corporate horseshit. The grabbing hands can pull it thin at the seams but somehow the game itself retains something uncontrolled and uplifting. It is perhaps Neymar’s most startling achievement to date that a player who embodies exactly this in his skills and his heritage has instead come to represent something else; the co-opting of grace and beauty, the transformation of his own expressive talent into something that seems to belong to them and not to us.

Probably a move to Barcelona makes sense for all concerned now, a super-club that can still take the weight of another royal visit. All the more so if Neymar can rediscover that spark. For now there is a sense of absence, of a grand talent that has travelled deep inside the machine and lost itself along the way.

The Guardian Sport

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