The challenges in French football are so far beneath Neymar that many have long speculated that he is picking and choosing which games to play and which ones to avoid. Consider it a perk of the job.
Last week he threw himself a 26th birthday party immense in its dimensions, inviting along all his Paris Saint-Germain team-mates – or to put it more specifically – all those other footballers who work on behalf of Project Neymar.
The night after, most of those players who had attended his self promotion exercise at the Pavillon Cambon where they were entertained by reggaeton superstar Maluma were back on the field to play against Sochaux in the Coupe de France. Neymar wasn’t. He was excused again.
That is just one example of the privilege Neymar is said to enjoy since becoming the world’s most expensive player last summer when PSG paid his €222 million buyout clause to Barcelona.
Another would be the penalties. Neymar put Edinson Cavani in his place earlier in the season when taking control of those duties in a spat which threatened to overshadow the job coach Unai Emery was hired to complete.
It has been reported in El Pais this week that the Spanish trainer was requested to dial down the duration and intensity of his video sessions in preparation for matches on behalf of certain players said to be growing bored of them.
Under those circumstances it is impossible for Emery or any other coach to rein in Neymar. There is no way he can drop him – unless Neymar himself decides not to play. There is no way to discipline him if needs be seeing as the No. 10 has a direct line to Nasser Al Khelaifi – the PSG president – who pulled out all the stops to ensure his signing in the first place and who is doing everything to make sure he’s happy.
There is however one unifying objective for all who work at Parc des Princes – Neymar and Emery included – and that is to win the Champions League.
PSG would probably walk Ligue 1 and win a treble even without Neymar but it is in Europe where Qatar needs its money to make an impact. It hasn’t committed a sizeable chunk of its sovereign wealth to win a few trinkets here and there. It wants the big one.
The squad is talented; the first XI is probably on par with any of the teams expecting to make the semi-finals in this competition. The problem is that PSG meet genuine challenges so infrequently that they are rudderless when they find one.
This was proven in the Champions League group stage against Bayern Munich. Having defeated the Bavarians in Paris earlier in the campaign and cost Carlo Ancelotti his job, PSG were no match for the power of the home side in the Allianz Arena.
Earlier this year they faced Lyon away from home and were soundly beaten. An away day in Lyon is one of the few occasions in French football where PSG do not expect to be in total command for 90 minutes and they suffered.
Neymar was absent for that one; he played a few days earlier, scoring four in a 8-0 routing of Dijon in Parc des Princes. It might well prove to be one of the most pointless games of football ever played but one in which Neymar nonetheless aggravated a leg injury which ruled him out of the Lyon challenge.
But he will be on hand at Santiago Bernabeu in the first of two matches which define PSG’s season, Emery’s season and, maybe, Neymar’s entire Parisian legacy.
He will have to rouse himself from the dreamlike state he’s been in since his estimated €700,000 per-week move to France and prove that he can be the difference maker against the best in Europe – as he was hired to do – and not just against the Dijons of this world.
No doubt Real will be having a close look at Neymar on their own patch. This is a ground he could have walked on as a home player plenty of times in the past. He trained here as a junior and Barcelona just beat Real to his signing in 2013 when he first departed Santos for Europe.
At some stage it looks inevitable that he will wear the white of Real Madrid. That is in the opinion of Marcelo, Neymar’s international team-mate who has been agitating this week for the forward to take the plunge.
But the Bernabeu is one of the most demanding arenas in world football to perform in. Who knows what kind of Neymar will remain once his orgy at PSG is finished. Who knows what kind of player all that money and all those commercial engagements and all that travel by private jet will leave behind. Who knows what a year, or two or three, here will do to one of the most talented dribblers and impactful strikers the game has ever known.
And that could be Neymar’s real challenge in the years upcoming; not necessarily taking the European Cup to Paris but emerging from these days of semi-retirement whether that happens or not.
Marco Verratti’s former agent Dontao di Campli told Tuttosport last month that no club would be able to extricate Neymar, or any other player for that matter, from PSG because the contracts are so fat that they are living in “prisons made of gold”.
It’s already been reported that Madrid have put the feelers out regarding Neymar’s lifestyle and whether it’s compatible with life in the Bernabeu hothouse. Judging by the stream of visitors to parties in his Paris home as documented on his Instagram account, well, there is a suggestion that Neymar might well be burning himself out.
And given the scale of reconstruction necessary to sign him on the part of PSG in order to circumvent Financial Fair Play regulations, Madrid might well consider it more prudent to have a cadre of consistent and committed performers instead.
And that could prove to be Neymar’s ultimate fate; to serve his sentence at PSG’s golden prison if Madrid – the only club who can do it – decide to pass up the opportunity to sign him.