He was supposed to be the heir to Lionel Messi’s throne. Signed to complement the world’s best player, but ultimately to succeed him, Neymar was to be Barcelona’s next superstar. But instead, he leaves as another Luis Figo.
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Although yet to reach his peak, Neymar is one of the finest footballers to have pulled on the famous Blaugrana shirt. And perhaps that is why Barcelona’s fans are so upset at his defection to Paris Saint-Germain. Figo, too, was wonderful as a Barca player – but he is a persona non grata at Camp Nou these days.
When Barca reached the Champions League final in 2015, Figo was picked by UEFA to turn out for a Blaugrana legends side in a friendly match ahead of the showpiece against Juventus in Berlin, but the Catalan club asked for the Portuguese to be blocked from representing their team and their request was granted.
In the final itself, Neymar netted in the 97th minute to help seal a 3-1 win for Barca and also a treble after they had also won La Liga and the Copa del Rey. He had etched his name into folklore for the Blaugrana and, alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, formed a front three described by boss Luis Enrique as “the greatest in the history of football”.
But now, motivated either by money (he is set to earn a staggering €30 million a year and will be paid €40m up front), the desire to escape from the shadow of his Argentine team-mate or a bit of both, he is leaving – in acrimonious circumstances – to join Paris Saint-Germain.
Figo’s exit was worse. The Portuguese winger was Barcelona’s best player and also their captain at a time when the club was not winning the major trophies and his departure was seen as the ultimate betrayal as he joined Real Madrid in the summer of 2000.
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Barca received what was a world-record €60m fee for the Portuguese, but the player was never forgiven by his former fans, who famously threw a pig’s head on to the pitch on one of his return visits to Camp Nou.
Neymar is not joining Madrid, but his behaviour this summer has tarnished his legacy at Barcelona forever. Just a few months after signing a lucrative new contract, the former Santos forward is off to PSG for more money and, it has been reported in Spain, another big bonus for his father in the region of €40m.
The player himself has turned out for Barca in pre-season, starring in the International Champions Cup in the United States. He has also had photo opportunities with singer Demi Lovato and boxer Floyd Mayweather, so he has hardly shunned the limelight, but he has kept quiet over his future in that time and annoyed fans in the process.
Ironically, Figo defended Neymar not so long ago. The Portuguese stuck up for the Brazilian after his supposedly provocative play angered Valencia last October and said: “That’s his way of playing. If it annoys anyone, that’s their problem.”
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Many of Barcelona’s supporters have spent several years defending Neymar too against accusations that he is a diver, that he antagonises adversaries with unnecessary show-boating, that he does not score enough goals and so on.
Through it all, he has been largely impressive on the pitch, netting over 100 goals and racking up 59 assists as well since signing in 2013. But few fans are defending him now and, worse still, posters went up around Camp Nou this week with the message: “Wanted, traitor. Mercenaries, out of Barcelona. Only players who love the shirt.”
Former Barcelona president Joan Gaspart, who had to deal with Figo’s exit as soon as he took over in 2000, said on Wednesday: “I have experienced this type of situation. Neymar is in the Figo chapter. He was all alone and now he will be accompanied by Neymar.”
The current Barca board placed their faith in the Brazilian in one of the most controversial transfers in football history, which led to criminal charges for corruption following his move from Santos and also the imprisonment of president Sandro Rosell. And all for the player to leave for more money four years down the line.
So even though he is not joining a direct rival like Figo did, Neymar is now being compared to the Portuguese when he was supposed to be a successor to Messi. It is a sad end to a story that was supposed to be a happy one – and even a world-record fee of €222m seems like little consolation right now.