PARIS: His pre-teen skills bewitched internet users over a decade ago, and now Brazil’s Neymar is set to dazzle in the French capital with his forecast world-record transfer to wannabe European power Paris Saint-Germain.
Neymar’s projected move from giants Barcelona and the elite Spanish La Liga to continental underachieving PSG and the low-key Ligue 1 has raised eyebrows.
But the French club’s Qatari owners are nothing if not ambitious, determined to sign Neymar as part of their drive to capture the Champions League.
And to transform PSG into a European super club, they had no hesitation in making 25-year-old Neymar the world’s most expensive player of all-time for a fee that will more than double the previous record paid by Manchester United for Paul Pogba last summer.
PSG haven’t agreed to pay such a massive amount solely for the undoubted attention and shirt sales that their new recruit will garner, but for one of the most gifted players on the planet.
And PSG will be fully expecting him to provide 40-plus goals a season in all competitions and to take the perennial European also-rans all the way to the final of the Champions League for the first time.
Everything moves fast in football, especially for the man who made his professional debut for Santos as a waif-like teenager just eight years ago and joined Barcelona in 2013.
The apprentice megastar has had to share the spotlight with team-mates Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez at the Camp Nou, especially after injuring himself in the 2014 World Cup.
But his inspirational display in the thrilling climax of Barcelona’s sensational 6-1 Champions League last-16, second-leg, comeback against PSG in March would have convinced the Ligue 1 giants that Neymar was worth the massive investment.
His pass for Sergi Roberto’s winning goal was one of the highest quality, having kicked off the late flurry of goals with a glorious free-kick.
Time to kick on
On top of his stunning club performances, Neymar’s reputation as one of the game’s best players has been enhanced by his performances in Brazilian colours.
He has scored 52 international goals in only 77 appearances, and led the five-time world champions to victory in the 2013 Confederations Cup on home soil.
Despite some controversy over a nasty elbow on Croatia’s Luka Modric, he impressed at the World Cup a year later in scoring four goals before having his tournament ended by an injury sustained in the quarter-final against Colombia.
The hosts famously collapsed in Neymar’s absence to a sensational 7-1 thrashing by Germany in the semi-finals, but the number 10 has helped them recover since and they were the first South American nation to book their spot in next year’s World Cup.
He also turned out for the Olympic side last August, and duly scored the winner in the penalty shoot-out as Brazil beat Germany for gold to earn a small measure of revenge for the humiliation two years before.
Back at Barca he established himself a central part of Barcelona’s famed ‘MSN’ trio alongside Messi and Suarez as they stormed to the 2015 Champions League title, but he managed only 13 league goals last season as the Catalan giants failed to defend the Spanish title.
Neymar: the brand
Despite a slightly disappointing 12 months, the Neymar brand remains strong.
Major sponsors have flocked to his door for his good looks, happy-go-lucky nature and huge social media following with Nike, Gillette, Panasonic and Volkswagen among Neymar’s big-name brands.
“He is someone that everyone knows, from the 70-year-old grandmother to the five-year-old grandson,” Erich Beting, an expert in football marketing in Brazil, told AFP last year.
“When you reach the status where people want to be like you, that makes you priceless for brands and that is what he has managed.”
His image off the field has been damaged by tax fraud cases in his homeland and in Spain over the murky deal that brought him to Barca from Santos in 2013.
But other global stars have fallen foul of tax authorities since, including Messi, whilst Cristiano Ronaldo also faces allegations of tax fraud.
Neymar is still one of the most marketable athletes in the world, and that is one of the biggest reasons why he commanded a new world record for his services.
His every move has been followed by his near 80 million Instagram followers as the deal edged closer.
On the pitch, his skill is there for all to see too, his ‘rainbow flicks’ prove that.
But PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi will be expecting serious substance from the biggest star to ever play for his club.
The Qatari’s dream of lifting the Champions League trophy has faltered time and again, and Neymar will be under pressure to help Unai Emery’s men deliver that holy grail.
All eyes in France will be waiting to see if he can deliver on the potential that he has shown throughout his career, and finally prove himself to be able to carry a team almost single-handedly to major honours.