Discover more from Grace on Football
Neymar to PSG changed football forever. What if it never happened?
The most seismic transfer in football history, reversed.
No one thought Neymar would ever leave Barcelona. A £198 million release clause was so huge as to be unattainable. When Paris Saint-Germain paid up, they rewrote the rules of what was possible in the transfer market.
The saga also set off a chain of events transforming European club football. Barcelona, panicked and with a huge pile of cash handed to them, spent big on Ousmane Dembélé and Philippe Coutinho. Liverpool used that Coutinho money to rebuild the spine of the side with Virgil van Dijk, Alisson and Fabinho. The next several years were arguably set in play by the Neymar move.
With Neymar now playing in Saudi Arabia, the whole saga is over. Was it worth it to PSG? Probably not. I’m not sure they, Neymar or Barcelona came off at all well from the affair. All would probably wish things went differently.
So what if it never happened? I looked into my crystal ball to find out what’s going on in the alternate universe where Neymar stays at the Camp Nou.
Grace on Football is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
It took a few days, but in hindsight, it was all over with a tweet.
On the 23rd July, Gerard Piqué posted a picture of himself and Neymar with a simple caption: Se queda. “He stays”. 72 hours later, Barcelona were briefing to the world’s top football journalists that Neymar would indeed be indeed staying, and was on the brink of signing a new contract. Three weeks later, it was done, and Neymar was standing next to president Josep Maria Bartomeu with a shirt saying “2022”. The release clause is €800 million.
Barça breath a sigh of relief. They were on the verge of panicking and doing something stupid. New manager Ernesto Valverde is happy with his squad, and the club don’t feel the need to go back into the transfer market. PSG, meanwhile, are frustrated but ultimately satisfied with their late acquisition of Kylian Mbappé.
That was well received across Europe. Borussia Dortmund knew that Barça liked Ousmane Dembélé, and new manager Peter Bosz could now plan for the season with certainty about the team’s best player. Over in England, Manchester City’s bright young talent Jadon Sancho still wanted out. He had offers from both North London clubs but, on the advice of childhood friend Reiss Nelson, opts for Arsenal in an £8 million move. Philippe Coutinho, meanwhile, was aware of Barcelona’s interest through his agent, but Liverpool never received an offer from the Camp Nou.
Barça start the season in sparkling form. It looks like Valvere has given the team a new impetus, and the trio of Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez are as bright as ever. They go into the winter break 11 points clear at the top of La Liga and cruise through the Champions League group stages. No one in Europe is playing football like them right now.
There aren’t many title races across Europe. PSG still look comfortable in Ligue 1 without Neymar’s extra sparkle, with Mbappé emerging as the team’s key player. Dortmund are a distant second behind Bayern in Germany, but some decisive moments of quality from Dembélé keep Bosz in a job for the rest of the season. Liverpool are still in the top four hunt even as their leaky defence lets down their sparkling attack of Coutinho, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino. They don’t have the money to sign Virgil van Dijk, so make do with secondary target Stefan de Vrij.
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are top of the table and cruising, with José Mourinho’s Manchester United behind them in second. Both clubs are keen to sign Alexis Sánchez that January, who is out of contract in six months. City make Arsenal a cash offer, while United want to swap him for Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Arsène Wenger decides he doesn’t need Mkhitaryan, with young Sancho looking capable in the attacking midfield role Sánchez would vacate, so the player is sold to City. Sánchez spends most of the rest of the season on the bench, but delivers when it matters, scoring the winning goal to knock Liverpool out of the Champions League and move City closer to their dream.
Though Barça wobble a little bit in the second leg, Neymar sets up Suárez for an away goal against Roma to secure their semi-final tie against Man City. Guardiola’s team pushes them for everything they have over those two legs, but when the front three are on form, there’s just nothing you can do. Barcelona set up a Champions League final against none other than Real Madrid, in what many call the game of the millennium. The first ever Clasico Champions League final is a bit of a letdown, as these showpiece matches often are, but Barça don’t care, as they win it a sixth time in Kyiv, complete another treble, and bring shame to their great rivals.
Florentino Pérez is furious, and sacks Zinedine Zidane. In typical fashion, he wants a statement galactico signing to make up for the loss. He decides that Salah will be that player. Liverpool, who qualified for next season’s Champions League ahead of Chelsea by a single point, decide to accept the offer. They need the money to sign summer targets Alisson Becker and Fabinho.
After spending months berating the board for not landing Sánchez, and overseeing an alarming drop in form that saw them dip to third place in the process, Man Utd decide to sack Mourinho. In his place, they hire Luis Enrique, fresh from a year’s sabbatical. Chelsea, under Maurizio Sarri, make splashy moves with Jorginho, Kepa Arrizabalaga and Van Dijk. Liverpool add Fabinho and Alisson to their improving core. Nonetheless, City still win the title without a serious fight.
In a bold and brash move typical of Pérez, Real Madrid hire Mourinho to replace Zidane. Despite angling for a move, Cristiano Ronaldo is told that he is not allowed to leave the club. Not after last season’s embarrassment. Thibaut Courtois is the new goalkeeper. Madrid put up a much better fight for La Liga this time, but Barcelona ultimately win out. Mourinho’s reactive style didn’t pick up as many points against weaker sides.
Barça make it past Lyon and Man Utd in the Champions League knockout stages without too much trouble. They face Bayern in the semi-finals, who had overcome Liverpool and Porto to get there. At times in this contest, they really do look exposed. Everyone can see this team isn’t quite what it was a couple of years ago. But they just scrape through with an away goal at the Allianz, as Messi slides in Neymar for an acceptable 3-1, making the final on away goals.
On the other side of the bracket, Real Madrid look good. Mourinho’s counter-attacking style is well suited to this tournament. They beat Ajax in an anti-football bore-fest. Juventus and Madrid both try to out-sufferball each other, with the Spanish team’s quality enough to get the win. For their valiant efforts, Tottenham never had a foothold against Madrid in the semi-final. Real were once again in the Champions League final against yes, that’s right, Barcelona.
You don’t need to tell me how Mourinho approaches this game. It makes the Steven Gerrard match look like liquid football. The game goes to penalties. In what ends up being his last ever kick for Los Blancos, Ronaldo scores the winning penalty and flips the script from last time. Real have taken a Champions League title back. Mourinho pulls off his biggest “masterclass”. Having won La Liga, Barcelona decide not to panic and keep Valverde in the job.
Everything really does go wrong for Man City. The Aymeric Laporte injury combines with teething problems replacing Fernandinho with Rodri. And then they underperform xG just because. Their points total falls from 98 to 81. It’s almost enough to win the title, but Liverpool just pip them to it with 83 points. Jürgen Klopp has ended the 30 year wait. Man Utd and Chelsea both hit over 75 points in a tight season at the top. Luis Enrique is doing a solid job without blowing anyone away. Chelsea, meanwhile, rely on their excellent record defending set pieces with Van Dijk heading away every corner.
Still, after the first lockdown ends and football resumes behind closed doors, City are in the knockout stages of the Champions League. They deal with Real Madrid impressively despite Salah’s quality, but Guardiola changes everything against plucky Lyon and they get knocked out at the quarter final stage. Barça put up a fight against Bayern, but lose 4-2 and Valverde makes a swift exit. Paris Saint-Germain are really a one man team, but Mbappé is only fit enough for the bench against Atalanta, so the plucky side from Bergamo pull off a shock win and head for the semis.
Atalanta play some more of Gian Piero Gasperini’s brilliant football against RB Leipzig in the semi-finals and win 2-1. This is David against Goliath stuff now as Atalanta face Bayern in the Champions League final. Bayern kept their tactically limited manager Niko Kovač after reaching the semis last season, but his team just aren’t as impressive as they should be. As the world suffers so much through the pandemic, Atalanta pull off the miracle of miracles and win the Champions League.
After a disappointing second season, a year earlier than usual, Real Madrid sack Mourinho. In one of the least romantic moves in football, Gasperini leaves Atalanta to head to Madrid. PSG discard of Thomas Tuchel to bring in Mourinho. Barcelona hire Ronald Koeman and finally bring the “MSN” era to a close as Suárez leaves for Atlético Madrid. Barça’s financial issues mean they don’t sign a direct replacement.
After a slow start, Man City are in control of the Premier League by the season’s midpoint. Liverpool are more inconsistent than the previous year, but De Vrij has his best season at centre-back while Mané, Firmino and Coutinho are always a threat. Man Utd are finally looking good under Luis Enrique and mount a strong title challenge, but just fall short to City. Chelsea are stuttering, with Frank Lampard never finding a consistent team as Eden Hazard’s injuries become a real problem. Lampard gets sacked in January and replaced by a safe pair of hands in Carlo Ancelotti, but Chelsea still miss out on the top four. New look Tottenham get that last spot instead under Tuchel.
Gasperini does well at Real Madrid, bringing a progressive style of football to the club for the first time. Real win La Liga and earn the plaudits. They’re just as good in Europe. They dispose of Atalanta followed by Liverpool pretty comfortably, stomp over rudderless Chelsea, then have the good fortune of Guardiola’s Man City overthinking it in the final. The good times are back.
Barcelona’s financial problems are getting harder to ignore. La Liga will not allow them to register players unless things are brought under control. This is fixed when Man Utd sign Neymar for £80 million, reuniting the Brazilian with Luis Enrique. This means the Barça squad is pretty inadequate, which costs Koeman his job as Xavi Hernández replaces him soon enough. Madrid are once again champions in pretty comfortable fashion as Barça become way too dependent on Messi at a point when he’s declining.
Man Utd start the season emphatically, as Neymar links up brilliantly with Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba. Things take a turn for the worse after Christmas, as Neymar suffers injuries that mean he rarely features. At the same time, sources around the club begin leaking stories about his poor behaviour. All of this contributes to the sharp downturn in form that sees United miss out on the top four, and Luis Enrique loses his job at the end of the season. City again run away with the title, while Liverpool and Arsenal both have solid seasons finishing second and third. Tuchel’s Spurs again finish fourth.
Man City meet Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals, with both Guardiola and Gasperini likely to produce something special. The game becomes about who can best dominate the ball and manipulate space, with neither team interested in sitting back and countering. City win through better quality and make the Champions League final against Liverpool, who still haven’t been tested. City get the job done and lift their first ever European Cup.
Messi wins the World Cup in November then announces he will be exiting Barcelona at the end of the season. He gets applauded by every away ground he visits before leaving Europe for good. This good feeling inspires a strong Barça season, regaining La Liga from Real Madrid. Real signed Erling Haaland to give the side a galactio boost, to the mild frustration of Gasperini. There’s only one winner in that battle, and Madrid fire the Italian after an underwhelming campaign.
Despite Guardiola’s desire to freshen up the side, City do not push Madrid all the way to sign Haaland, deciding instead to tweak other parts of the team. This proves a mistake when Arsenal really start to click under Mikel Arteta, and the Gunners shock everyone by winning their first league title since 2004. United beat City to second place as new boss Erik ten Hag is able to get more out of Neymar and build a very strong team. Newcastle, under Saudi ownership, end the season fourth.
Liverpool are growing stale under Klopp, and he keeps his job by the skin of his teeth after failing to make top four. Chelsea, under new chairman Todd Boehly, have been in dire need of a rebuild, and everyone accepts it will take manager Graham Potter several years, so his job is safe. Tuchel begins clashing with Daniel Levy, inevitably ending up getting the sack as the team suffers.
City also struggle in Europe, losing to Bayern in the quarter finals. The German side then beat Real Madrid in the semis and Inter in the final to win Europe’s biggest prize once again, making Julian Nagelsmann the most feted manager in football. Guardiola decides to step down at City, feeling he can’t reinvigorate the team once more, and City quickly spend a fortune on poaching Nagelsmann. It’s a new era for the club in sky blue, and a very different footballing landscape from 2017.
At least, that’s how I think it would all pan out. Do tell me if you think it goes differently.
Update: minor correction in 18/19. My crystal ball misread the Champions League, initially forgetting that Bayern beat Liverpool in the Round of 16 so made the semis instead of LFC.