On February 16, the prodigal son returns. A mouthwatering fixture in the round of 16 of the Champions League pits FC Barcelona against French-champions Paris Saint-Germain. The match sees Neymar Jr. return to the Camp Nou for the first time since his controversial transfer in 2017.
It was perhaps the most consequential transfer in football history, impacting not only Barcelona’s future and current state of things but clubs all across Europe. Not to mention, it completely changed the transfer world and prices have spiralled out of control ever since.
The one touted to take over from Messi left Barça fans distraught and in chaos, and he’s been dribbling his way past defenders with pizazz and style with PSG ever since.
Neymar is the quintessential “one that got away.” He and Barcelona were a perfect fit, and they were destined to ride off into the sunset together, but things got in the way of that. Most fans have come to accept his departure, although reluctantly, whilst others are in a stage of denial, eagerly anticipating his far-fetched return.
On the occasion of his 29th birthday, Barça Universal looks at the story of Neymar Jr, his time at Barcelona, the peaks the two parties reached together, and his eventual departure.
Rise to Stardom
As a teenager, Neymar was already one of the world’s most highly sought after players. He was an archetypal Brazilian-forward: dazzling with the ball at his feet and could punish defenders every which way. He had an irresistible flair and creativity to his game. Playing for Santos FC only added to the lore of Neymar being “the next Pelé”.
He spent nine years at Santos, scoring 136 goals and garnering 65 assists across 224 appearances. He won the 2011 and 2012 South American Footballer of the Year award, notably the 2011 Copa Libertadores. Neymar also guided his team to the 2011 Club World Cup final against Barcelona, giving the Catalans and their fans a first-hand look at the Brazilian prodigy. Barça ended up winning the match 4-0, but Neymar put in an admirable performance nonetheless.
He received multiple offers to play in Europe, but declined them, instead waiting for the right moment to display his talents on the world stage.
That moment came in 2013 when Santos accepted a bid of €57 million from Barcelona.
Move to Barcelona
Neymar moved to Barça in the summer of 2013 as a 21-year-old. Despite offers from practically every major club in Europe, including more lucrative deals, Neymar chose to don the Garnet and Blue.
The move made sense for Barça as they wanted to revamp their attack that was too predictable at times during the 2012/13 season. They needed unpredictability, flair, and someone to help take the pressure off of Messi.
On the other hand, detractors argued that Barça already had a surplus of attacking talent and that they should have focused on signing a defender instead. There were also doubts as to whether he could transition his game to Europe, whether he could grace the pitch at the same time as Messi, and whether he could fit to the Barça style that was very team-oriented.
2013/14: A Shaky Start
Neymar made his first appearance as a sub during Barça’s league opening 7-0 win against Levante. He scored his first club goal in the first leg of the 2013 Supercopa de España, equalizing 1-1 with Atlético Madrid. The goal would end up being decisive as Barça won the cup on away goals. It would be their only trophy in a disappointing season. Neymar scored on his El Clásico debut as Barca beat Real Madrid 2-1, without Lionel Messi. His highlight of the season would come in December with a hattrick in Barça’s 6-1 victory over Celtic in the Champions League.
It was a tumultuous season for Barça, due in part to multiple injuries that sidelined major players, notably Lionel Messi. New manager Tata Martino was in a tough position, and fans were unimpressed with his tactics that strayed from the “Barça way.”
Neymar did his best during the season to adapt to a new football style, but he was played on both wings and lacked consistency. He had extra pressure because of Messi’s nagging injuries the entire season and fans were hoping that he would help carry the team without him. Neymar started his debut season well but couldn’t sustain it throughout the entire year, due to a loss of form and injury. In the first half of his La Liga season, Neymar managed six goals and eight assists, but in the second half, he only had three goals and two assists.
Neymar also had to deal with off-the-field problems involving his transfer. A prosecutor revealed that the transfer cost Barça 86 million euros instead of the previously thought 57 million, as Neymar’s parents received nearly 40 million euros in cash. As a result, president Sandro Rosell resigned because of misappropriation of funds and he would eventually be imprisoned in 2017 because of it. Josep Maria Bartomeu took over and was charged with tax fraud.
Neymar ended his first year in Barcelona with 15 goals and 15 assists and was motivated to help Brazil in the World Cup at home soil that next summer.
2014/15: On Top of the World
Neymar had a promising World Cup, but it was cut short due to an injury in Brazil’s quarter-final matchup against Columbia. Without their talisman, Brazil ended up losing 7-1 to Germany in what is remembered as one of the most infamous matches of all time.
He returned to a revamped Barça squad, and a team desperate to right the wrongs of the previous season’s shortcomings. Out were Cesc Fabregas, Victor Valdes, and Carles Puyol, and in came Claudio Bravo, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, Ivan Rakitic, and Luis Suárez.
Under a new coach, he helped form the unstoppable attacking trio “MSN”, alongside Messi and Suárez. Neymar looked more comfortable than ever and was lethal in front of goal as well as setting up his attacking partners. In his first 12 league games, Neymar tallied 11 goals and three assists, already surpassing his numbers in that competition from the prior season.
Messi, Suarez, and Neymar terrorized their opponents day in and day out and paired with a stout defence and brilliant midfield, Barça won the fabled treble that season, winning the Spanish League, Copa del Rey, and Champions League. With that, they became the first club in history to win the treble twice.
Neymar was crucial to Barça’s success, bringing creativity and a spark every time he played. It was the Champions League in particular where Neymar excelled the most that season, as he scored ten goals, making him joint top scorer with Ronaldo and Messi.
Most impressively, Neymar scored seven goals in the knockout stages, including the third goal in the final. He finished the season with 39 goals and ten assists, nearly tripling his goal tally from the season before. The MSN trio became notorious worldwide, and they ended the season with 122 goals between the three South Americans. This season, Neymar, further solidified himself as one of the world’s best players, and his talents in all aspects of the game were on full display. He showed an edge in big games and was super reliable. It was a perfect season.
2015/16: Continued Excellence
Barça followed up their treble-winning season with a domestic double, winning the Spanish league and Copa del Rey. They also won the UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup. Neymar scored 24 goals and had 16 assists in the league and scored in the Spanish Cup final. He also finished third in the 2015 Ballon d’Or, behind who else but Messi and Ronaldo.
Neymar took on a slightly different role this season, spending more time in central areas and setting up teammates, not to mention still scoring plenty of goals. He had 31 goals and 25 assists that season, the same amount of assists he had in the past two seasons combined. This season he averaged 3 key passes per game in the La Liga according to whoscored.com, compared to 1.6 per game the previous season. This showcased his more creative role, as Neymar is someone who equally likes to set up teammates and score himself.
Once again, the MSN dominated and finished the season with 131 goals, surpassing their record and solidifying themselves in the history books with the most goals for an attacking trio in a season. They continued to be given the freedom to do whatever they like up-top, and it paid dividends for the team.
This was them at their peak, and Neymar continued to deserve a place at the seat of the table with the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as one of the best players in the world. While notorious for his dribbling and flair, even goalscoring acumen, this season saw Neymar develop into a more complete player in terms of the creative side of the ball.
While it was a dominant season in many aspects, it was ultimately disappointing because of a loss to Atlético Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final where Barça couldn’t break down their stout defence.
2016/17: Final Season
In his final season, Neymar continued to prove why he would take over the team after Messi. Although the squad was mismatched, there were plenty of poor signings, and there was no on-the-pitch success, the Brazilian still had a solid campaign. He scored 20 goals and had a whopping 26 assists, fully embracing a more creative role. He had 3 key passes per game in the league and averaged 5.6 dribbles per game, the most during his stint with the Blaugrana.
Neymar’s highlight of the season–and maybe his highlight in a Barça uniform–came in the famous “Remontada”, where Barca overcame a 4-0 deficit in the first leg against PSG and won 6-1 at home. Neymar scored twice that night and assisted the final goal. His impact was felt all over the pitch. He further solidified himself as a big-game player who could be counted on whenever the team needed him most.
He scored his 100th goal for the club in April and also scored in the Copa del Rey final against Alaves, which would end up being Barça’s only trophy that year.
World Breaking Transfer
Throughout the summer of 2017, there were rumblings that Neymar might depart the Camp Nou. It was blasphemous for many fans who couldn’t grasp why Neymar would leave a perfect situation like that at Barcelona. But in many aspects, it made sense.
Neymar, no matter how good he performed, was still overshadowed by Messi. The Argentine showed no signs of slowing down, and he wouldn’t “hand over the reigns” for so long. If Neymar wanted to prove himself as a leader, he had to leave. He also had a reported desire to win the Ballon d’Or, and the chances of him doing that while playing alongside someone like Messi were low.
As he stepped on the pitch against Real Madrid in a summer-friendly, fans had no idea it would be the last time they saw Neymar in the Garnet and Blue. Barça players and fans tried to stop him from leaving, but once someone’s mind is set, there’s not much you can do. With the club’s natural refusal to sell, PSG activated his release clause of a little over €222 million. Consequently, he became the most expensive footballer in history, by a large margin.
The true reasons for his departure are forever unknown, but it was in all reality, probably an amalgamation of the aforementioned factors. Also, after winning every trophy possible at Barcelona, it’s natural to want a new challenge.
Culés around the world were left dumbfounded at his departure, and the club has struggled to fill the void he left behind. Repercussions from that transfer are still felt to this day as transfer fees skyrocketed and inflated (that is, until the COVID-19 pandemic).
The deal left Barça with more money than they could possibly deal with and they quickly spent it on Ousmane Dembélé and Philippe Coutinho, both of which have struggled to live up to their lofty price tags — admittedly, hindsight is 20-20. The money also helped inadvertently create the juggernaut that is Liverpool FC. The sum Liverpool received from the sale of Coutinho was spent on Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker, the final pieces who helped them win the Champions League and Premier League in the last two seasons.
There are still rumours every now and then about Neymar’s possible return to Barcelona, but it’s more and more unlikely by the day. He guided PSG to the Champions League final last season and has reached new heights as a player.
Neymar’s story with Barcelona is a timeless tale. Together, the two parties reached all-time highs, but they have both struggled to re-capture the magic they shared. For many, he’s still “the one that got away”, and they wonder what Barcelona, let alone the entire sport would be if he never left. But whatever may have been doesn’t matter now, as Barca prepare to move into a new era. The one that got away was just that: a player who wanted a new challenge, nothing more, nothing less.
All eyes are dead set on the mouthwatering clash between Barça and PSG in the Champions League, and it will surely live up to its lofty expectations.