Sports Nut

Big Money, Pretty Big Star

Paris Saint-Germain is paying Neymar to be the best soccer player in the world. But will he ever surpass Messi and Ronaldo?

FIFA Ballon d'Or nominees Neymar Jr of Brazil and FC Barcelona (L), Lionel Messi of Argentina and FC Barcelona (C) and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal and Real Madrid (R)
FIFA Ballon d’Or nominees Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo on Jan. 11, 2016, in Zurich, Switzerland.

Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images

After weeks of rumors, Paris Saint-Germain has handed over $263 million to buy out Neymar’s contract with Barcelona. The move is the biggest shake-up to the soccer firmament since Cristiano Ronaldo moved from Manchester United to Real Madrid in 2009. The purchase of the popular, if not unanimous, pick for the third-best player in the world is a massive, and massively expensive, statement of intent from PSG and leaves an equally huge hole in Barcelona’s lineup.

It’s safe to say the Spanish team was not anticipating this, not with the buyout clause in the 25-year-old Brazilian’s latest contract set so high. For many young players, such a clause, which states the amount of money the player or his buyer will have to pay to cancel the current deal, is an incentive designed to ensure upward mobility. The club is promising that if the player gets, say, $50-million good, then he can leave for whoever values him that highly.

For a superstar like Neymar, such clauses have traditionally been more of an ego-stroking device. Ronaldo’s is reportedly—and reportedly may be the key word here—$1.5 billion. To Barcelona, Neymar’s 222 million euro transfer fee was more a symbol of his astronomical value than the result of an exact appraisal. Whoever was crazy enough to pay this figure—more than double the previous world-record transfer fee—would have to convince Neymar he would be happier playing in something other than the most powerful front line in the sport along with Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez.

But if you build a $263 million wall, eventually someone will come along with a $264 million ladder. PSG’s owner, Oryx Qatar Sports Investments, has spent around $800 million on transfer fees alone since taking over the club in 2011. That money turned the French Ligue 1 into the team’s personal fiefdom, at least before an upstart Monaco team pipped them to the title this past year. So far, though, the ultimate goal of a Champions League title has eluded them.

When Neymar’s wages and various incentives and bonuses are added in, the Qataris are going to end up shelling out something north of half a billion dollars on a single player. How can that possibly be worth it?

PSG’s owners aren’t paying all that cash for a new attacking centerpiece or even for the world’s third-best player. They believe Neymar will soon become the best and most marketable player in the world and that they will recoup significant value if he does so while wearing a PSG jersey.

Barcelona and Real Madrid have been the two biggest clubs in the world for the last decade, largely because Messi and Ronaldo have played for them. Unfortunately for PSG and their new star, Messi and Ronaldo still play for Barcelona and Madrid. If they are starting to slow down, then the rest of the field, Neymar included, still has a lot of catching up to do.

What is clear is that Neymar wasn’t gaining enough ground at Barcelona. The hope when he signed in 2013 was that he would prove a successor to Messi. Despite scoring a remarkable 106 goals in 186 games, he ended up as more of a sidekick. If reports out of Spain are to be believed, for Neymar the move was as much about trying to escape Messi’s shadow as it was about the money.

That assumes that playing with Messi (and Suarez et al.) was doing more to hold Neymar back than it was helping him. Even at its peak, the MSN axis felt a bit like a cobbled-together supergroup—soccer’s own Traveling Wilburys. But Messi and Suarez are hardly ball hogs. Between them they diverted a lot more defensive attention than PSG’s Edinson Cavani will.

At the same time, Ligue 1 is more forgiving than Spain’s La Liga, and the Brazilian has consistently produced while at the center of his national team. So how many goals will Neymar have to score to become the best player in the world? What kinds of highlights will he have to produce? What if he takes the reins in Paris only to find that’s still not enough to challenge the duopoly of Messi and Ronaldo?

Neymar has hardly been the only victim of the attention paid to the best two players in the world. For the past decade, the global game has been played in the shadow of their rivalry. Messi will go down as the best player in history, despite what those who are skipping the rest of this article to leave a comment about him never winning a World Cup will say. Ronaldo may be remembered as the greatest pure goal scorer the game has ever seen.

The pair has finished 1-2 in some order in the voting for all but one Ballon d’Or since 2008. (Ronaldo finished sixth in the contest for the 2010 trophy, which was won by Messi.) The last back-to-back winner other than those two was Marco van Basten in 1988 and 1989, before South American players were even eligible for the award. Only a handful of other players have made the top three twice in a row in the last three decades. Meanwhile, both Messi and Ronaldo scored more goals last year than they did in the first seasons in which they won the award.

This kind of extended dominance is unprecedented in soccer, though not in our broader sporting landscape, which is littered with athletes like LeBron James, Tom Brady, and Serena Williams who ascended to the top of their games early in their 20s and then stayed there for a decade or longer. Modern sports science has turned athletes’ peaks into plateaus. Some Next Big Things can spend their entire careers trying to push beyond the Big Things of the present.

While Father Time may be undefeated, so far he’s made little headway on the two men Neymar is looking to surpass. With his tattoos, beard, and occasional dye job, the 30-year-old Messi still looks like a teenager pretending at adulthood. The immutable Ronaldo, 32, gets a little more Stepford Wife–like every year. How old will Neymar be when he is finally, definitively better than both of them? More importantly, who will be waiting in the wings trying to surpass him when that happens?

Barcelona and Real Madrid are both trying to recruit Monaco’s 18-year-old striker Kylian Mbappé. Borussia Dortmund’s 20-year-old Ousmane Dembélé has his pick of suitors. Manchester City’s 20-year-old Brazilian Gabriel Jesus scored seven goals in 10 games in the Premier League before getting hurt and has five in seven appearances for Brazil. By the time the sport needs a new global face, one of these options may be a more attractive candidate, not least because he—like Messi and Ronaldo circa 2008—will likely be around for another decade and a half.

If Neymar’s going to claim his place as the sport’s biggest star, or even turn the current diarchy into a triumvirate, he can’t wait for Messi or Ronaldo to bow out. He’s going to have to push past them starting now, in his first season with PSG. Otherwise, the Age of Neymar may be over before it begins. He’ll be part of soccer’s Lost Generation, adrift in Paris with his money and his broken dreams.