Messi and Neymar: Underpaid or crippling their clubs with colossal contracts?

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Some pundits have attributed Barcelona's financial problems to their captain's salary, while the injury-prone Brazilian is set for a new deal at PSG

Neymar has made no secret of the fact that what he wants more than anything else is to play with Lionel Messi at Paris Saint-Germain.

At Camp Nou, meanwhile, it has already been acknowledged by interim president Carles Tusquets that the cash-strapped Catalans should have sold the highest-paid player in sport when he asked to leave last summer.

Messi belatedly moving to Paris, then, appears to make sense for everyone concerned, including PSG midfielder Marco Verratti, who has already admitted that he would love to have Messi and Neymar playing ahead of him at the Parc des Princes.

"I would just give the ball to Neymar and Messi," the Italian told Canal Plus, "and then stay back to enjoy watching them play!"

The pair were certainly the biggest draw in football while playing either side of Luis Suarez during the 'MSN' days at Barcelona. Replace Suarez with Kylian Mbappe in Paris, and you might have an even more terrifying trio for opposition defences.

However, would Messi's arrival necessarily make PSG a stronger side? After all, the Argentine's signing might only hasten Mbappe's departure. 

As PSG midfielder Ander Herrera pondered in an interview with El Larguero, "All of them together? I don’t know how that would work with Financial Fair Play (FFP)."

In short, it would not. Even if PSG were willing to have Neymar, Mbappe and Messi all on their payroll, cuts would undoubtedly have to be made elsewhere.

Of course, there are precedents. Messi, Neymar and Suarez co-existed for three seasons at Camp Nou. 

But Messi and Neymar's wage demands have since soared, while Mbappe, whose PSG contract expires next year, is now in a position to ask for far more money than Suarez could at the peak of his powers.

Of course, Neymar stated that he would be willing to give up his position if Messi moved to Paris; perhaps he would also be willing to take a pay cut to make it happen too?

When LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for Miami Heat in 2010, he did so for one solitary reason: to win his first NBA championship. Chris Bosh joined for the exact same reason. And, despite being a free agent, Dwyane Wade re-signed with the Heat because he knew that 'The Big Three' would take some stopping.

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"That's why they all agreed to take a little less money," Frank Isola of ESPN sports shows 'Around the Horn' and 'Pardon the Interruption' tells Goal. "They wanted to play together because they knew they could win together.

"And Miami knew that all they needed to do then was fill out the roster with role players that fit well around them."

The net result was Miami making four successive NBA finals, two of which they won. In theory, Neymar, Mbappe and Messi could enjoy similar success at PSG if they were willing to lower their wage demands.

That seems unlikely, of course. Messi says money is irrelevant to him but he is still likely to earn a fortune from his next contract, whether he leaves Barca or not, while Neymar is just waiting to sign the lucrative four-year extension he has agreed with PSG.

But would putting three superstar attackers in the same forward line work for PSG as well as it did at Barca, who won the Champions League with the MSN in 2015?

Money has become ever more important in recent years – but does signing superstars ensure success?

Bayern Munich have become only the second team in history to record a sextuple, yet they famously turned their noses up at the idea of signing a 33-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018 for €100 million (£88m/$120m).

Manchester City, meanwhile, are presently on course for a quadruple, and Abu Dhabi money has undoubtedly been integral to their remarkable rise to prominence over the past decade – yet their record signing is defender Ruben Dias (£64.3m/$89m). Indeed, Pep Guardiola's team are more synonymous with £50m ($69m) full-backs than superstar strikers.

In football, collective strength seems more important than individual excellence. But why?

In the book 'The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong', authors Chris Anderson and David Sally argue that while basketball is a strong-link sport, football is a weak-link sport. 

They argue that in football, unlike basketball, "it is better to have a team of all 70 per cent players than it is to have a team where two players are 100%, the majority are 70s and then there is one bumbling 50% and one dreadful 30%. Strong links don’t win matches. Weak links lose them."

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Barcelona and PSG's results in recent years would certainly appear to support that claim. 

For all their troubles, the Blaugrana remain in possession of arguably the best player of all time in Messi, while they have also spent big on Philippe Coutinho, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele, yet they have become renowned for spectacular self-destruction in the Champions League because of their obvious defensive deficiencies and poor strength in depth.

Of course, after falling at the last-16 stage two years in a row, PSG made their first European Cup final last year and they took to the field with Mbappe and Neymar, the two biggest names in football after Ronaldo and Messi.

Yet they still came up short against a Bayern team without any weak links. In football, it seems, superstars can only do so much.

"So," Isola explains, "I do the 'Pardon the Interruption' show with Michael Wilbon and his big thing is, 'Messi's never won a World Cup.' But, for me, to even make a World Cup final is huge in football because it's so difficult. 

"But I hear people saying, 'How great can Messi be if he's never won a World Cup?' Well, that's more than a little unfair. But, here in the United States, we judge everybody by whether they've won a world championship and we put no stock into the regular season. 

"But there is a lot to be said for someone being consistently excellent over the course of an entire campaign, year after year.

"Secondly, what more can we expect of one player in football? He's far more reliant on the guys around him than a basketball player, who gets far more time on the ball and can easily influence the game in offence and attack.

"Look at LeBron James. He shows you how one player in the NBA can make so much of a difference. If he went to any team in the league, he would make them an instant contender.

"Now, look at Tom Brady in American football. He's great, a legend, and he probably plays the most important position in American sports. But he doesn't play defence. He's only playing half the time, when his team has the ball.

"So, even he can't make the same impact as LeBron can make in basketball. And Messi, for all his talent, has even less control over games in football. Why? Because of how much less possession he has of the ball, his number of team-mates and the size of the playing field."

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Are we doubting, then, whether the likes of Messi and Neymar are worth their wages?

When details of the Barcelona captain's gargantuan €555m (£491m/$674m) salary were leaked to the press recently, some pundits were quick to blame the club's financial problems on their No.10's pay packet.

They were essentially arguing that Messi was the reason why the club with the highest annual income in world football now cannot even afford to sign Eric Garcia. However, David Amoyal, ESPN columnist and host of the Calcioland podcast, sees things very differently.

"Firstly, Barcelona's problem is not Messi's contract – it's all the other stupid deals they've done," Amoyal tells Goal. "Sure, it's a lot of money for one player. There's no doubt about it. But, remember, Messi isn't just delivering insanely good performances on the pitch – consistently – he's also generating a huge amount of revenue through commercial deals.

"So, I have a much bigger problem with signings like Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele. Barca have had so many busts in terms of transfers and that's why they're in this position.

"In fact, from my perspective, and this may sound controversial to some, when it comes to Messi, and LeBron too for that matter, I think these superstars are actually underpaid within the context of their respective sports.

"LeBron may have a huge contract but so does your average reserve in the NBA. To me, $40m for LeBron sounds like much better value than paying $15m to a guy who sits on the bench."

But what about paying £56m ($78m) to a player that is nearly always injured when the Champions League knockout stage rolls around? For the third time in four seasons at PSG, Neymar will miss at least one leg of their last-16 tie, after suffering an adductor injury last week.

Mauricio Pochettino must share the blame for risking the brittle Brazilian in a Coupe de France clash with Caen, but does the forward's latest injury merely underline the folly of paying one footballer so much money?

When Neymar plays, he is usually decisive for PSG. He has more goal involvements (125) than games played (103) since joining from Barca in 2017 for a world-record €222m (£194m/$270m). 

However, we are talking about a physically frail player who draws a lot of fouls – and a character who makes no apologies for the fact that he loves to party.

He could not be more different, personality-wise, to his good friend Messi and even Ronaldo, who is even more brand-obsessed than Neymar, and leads just as extravagant a lifestyle, yet seems to have a very different approach to his craft.

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"I think it's fair to say that Cristiano's very conscious of his image, just like Neymar," Spanish football journalist Andy West tells Goal.

"Cristiano's been very keen to exploit all of the opportunities that his popularity as a footballer affords him. But he's maintained that awareness that all of this comes from what he does on the pitch. Football comes first.

"He's not allowed his commercial life to detract from his professional life. I don't think you could say the same about Neymar. 

"If you look at Neymar's tweets, for example, it's just brand, brand, brand. You wouldn't know he's a footballer the way he portrays himself at times. He's a celebrity first and foremost, whereas Ronaldo never seems to do anything that would jeopardise his ability to deliver on the pitch.

"Messi, too, had physical problems early in his career and Barca's medical team fairly quickly linked them to a poor diet and poor training regimes. So, they changed his diet, they convinced him to stop eating pizzas and drinking Coca-Cola, and he became fitter and overcame those fitness problems.

"But Neymar enjoys the other things in life too much. He doesn't have that ruthless commitment to his career, meaning he hasn't been able to achieve Messi and Ronaldo's level of consistency."

Indeed, one wonders whether at 34, Messi would arguably represent a better investment than Neymar – a player five years his junior – at this stage of their respective careers.

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Of the two, it is Neymar who is the bigger basketball fan – yet Messi is the one that appears more likely to emulate LeBron by continuing to challenge for championships into his late-30s.

As Isola says, "LeBron is 36 now and still the best player in the NBA, which is hard to believe. But we're talking about an incredible talent who works harder than anyone. In that sense, he's worth every cent.

"I think Messi is too. As for Neymar, I'm not so sure..." 

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