“Tell the Sheikh I’m available.” Just days after inspiring Barcelona’s brilliant comeback against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, Neymar shocked Brazil team-mates Marquinhos and Thiago Silva as he told them he was open to a move to PSG.
Neymar netted twice in the 6-1 win over the French giants on March 9, including a fabulous free-kick which led to the dramatic late turnaround at Camp Nou to seal a 6-5 aggregate victory. But what was his best performance in a Barca shirt also turned out to be the beginning of the end of his time at the Catalan club.
Instead of the Brazilian, the iconic image was of Lionel Messi celebrating wildly with the fans behind one of the goals. Even though Neymar had actually outshone his Argentine team-mate, it was that picture that ended up going viral and Barca even used it on a big billboard outside their stadium with the caption: “History happens here!”
Neymar missed Barca’s next match, a 2-1 defeat to Deportivo La Coruna, with a slight knock, returning to feature for 90 minutes in the 4-2 victory versus Valencia. And after that, he linked up with Brazil for the World Cup qualifiers against Uruguay and Paraguay.
It was then that he dropped the bombshell. “Tell the Sheikh I’m available,” he told team-mates Marquinhos and Thiago Silva, in reference to PSG owner Nasser Al-Khelaifi. Naturally, the two were taken aback by what they had heard, but they agreed to relay the message to their club boss.
The reaction to the 6-1 win over PSG had shown Neymar that, whatever he did, this would be Messi’s team. And although he had claimed on arrival in 2013 that he was “here to help” the Argentine attacker, he believed he deserved much more credit than that which he had received for the famous “remuntada”.
Later, as PSG began to work behind the scenes on signing the Brazilian, Santos’ midfielder Lucas Lima announced in June that he would be joining Barcelona in 2018 and the forward’s father, Neymar Sr, was set to receive a large fee for brokering the deal.
However, Santos threatened to report Barcelona to FIFA for breaking transfer rules and the Catalan club pulled out of the deal in order to avoid possible sanctions. Neymar’s father was furious and relations between the Brazilian forward and the Blaugrana board would never be the same again.
In any case, Neymar’s mind was made up and just days later, the 25-year-old told his team-mates (at Messi’s wedding to Antonela Roccuzzo in Rosario) that he would be leaving to join PSG later in the summer.
Reports of Neymar’s possible departure subsequently surfaced in July, but Barca vice-president Jordi Mestre said: “He’s staying, 200 per cent.” And after the Brazilian had starred in a pre-season win over Juventus, Gerard Pique posted a picture with his team-mate and a caption which read, “He’s staying”.
He did not stay, of course, and the move to PSG was confirmed on August 2. By then, the Barca board were extremely angry at how they believed they had been messed around by a player they had made an extraordinary effort to sign in 2013, a footballer they had earmarked as a long-term replacement for Messi.
And there was even more fallout to follow, because not only was Neymar leaving less than a year after signing a lucrative new contract with the Catalan club, but he and his father also told president Josep Maria Bartomeu they intended to cash in on the €26 million loyalty bonus as part of that agreement. Barca, though, were not having it, and left the cheque with a notary.
The player posted an emotional message on Instagram following his Barcelona exit, thanking his team-mates, with particular praise for friends Messi and Luis Suarez, along with the fans and saying that the Blaugrana would always be in his heart.
There was no such love for those higher up at Camp Nou, though, and following his impressive PSG debut in the 6-2 win over Toulouse, Neymar said: "I was very happy in Barcelona. But not with the board. I'm very sad with the board at Barcelona. They are not people who should be there. Barca deserve much better and everybody knows it."
Money is likely to be the main motivation behind those words, however, and earlier this month, AS reported that Neymar's legal team had tried to convince UEFA to ban Barcelona from the Champions League due to the Catalans’ refusal to pay up his €26m bonus. Those reports have since been confirmed to Goal by people at European football’s governing body.
Last week, Neymar’s entourage then met with Barca in court to agree a settlement after the player sued his former club for failure to pay his bonus. However, no agreement was reached between the two parties and Mundo Deportivo reported that the forward and his father cancelled their membership with the Catalan club, further severing links with the team that was a happy home for the player between 2013 and 2017.
There is no going back now. The relationship is toxic and only looks like getting worse, while the fans have turned against their former hero following his decision to leave and his attempt to get Barca banned from the Champions League.
What started with the wish for a superior status after his dynamic display against PSG, turned into a move to PSG just a few months later. In that time, there has been a bitter public divorce between Neymar and Barcelona’s board. And with the bonus still unpaid, this feud is set ro run and run.