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  • Writer's pictureKai Abbott

Neymar to Saudi Pro League Side Al-HiIal - Brilliance, Battles, and Unfulfilled Dreams

By Kai Abbott | August 21, 2023


(Image: Getty Images)

What if I told you that already by the age of 23, a young talent, who had just recently moved to one of the greatest teams in the world for nearly a world record fee, had already won the UEFA Champions League, La Liga, Copa Libertadores, Recopa Sudamericana, a Puskás award, and been nominated 4 times for the coveted Balon d’Or? You would surely believe that that player would go on to achieve a plethora of individual awards and trophies in the years to come, and potentially dethrone the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. For all the potential outcomes one could imagine occurring, a move at the age of 31 to the Saudi side of Al Hilal would most definitely not be on the cards.

Yet, that is precisely the surprising turn that Neymar Jr.’s career has taken. In a move that has stunned the footballing world, the Brazilian superstar has signed for Saudi Arabian side Al Hilal at 31 for $98.6m, and a monstrous salary of around $300m per year. The transfer has raised eyebrows and sparked debates about the motivations behind the move and the implications for Neymar’s legacy.

Neymar’s move to Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) in 2017, for a then-world record fee of $253m was a watershed moment. The transfer was viewed as an opportunity for Neymar to emerge from Messi’s shadow at Barcelona and stake his claim as the world’s best player. At PSG, there is no doubt that Neymar enjoyed considerable success, contributing to the team’s domestic dominance with five Ligue 1 titles, three Coupe de France victories, and two Coupe de la Ligue triumphs. Statistically, Neymar’s impact was undeniable as well. In 173 appearances, he scored 118 goals and registered 77 assists, and goal and assists ratio greater than the games he played.

However, Neymar’s tenure at PSG was not without its challenges. Injuries plagued the Brazilian, making him available for only 55 percent of PSG matches, and limiting his availability in crucial matches, particularly in the Champions League. Furthermore, despite his brilliance, Neymar was unable to propel PSG to European glory, a goal that had eluded the club since its inception. A combination of injuries, drama on-and-off the pitch, and a feisty temper could sum up his time in the French capital in one word; unfulfilling.

(Image: Getty Images)

Neymar is a rare player in the modern game, with a mix of the classic Brazilian flair dubbed by many as “Joga Bonito” (The Beautiful Game), and a cool finishing product. He is a showman among academy-refined talent. His flicks and tricks brought spectacle to PSG’s Parc des Princes, taking a step beyond a trail followed by predecessors Jay-Jay Okocha and Ronaldinho.

Promising first displays eventually led to conflict, as frustration over all that he did distract from the joy he brought fans. Many viewed him as the best player to set foot in Paris, a testament to his choice of leaving his comfort in Barcelona alongside Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi to start a new challenge abroad. Though admiration soon turned to vexation, leading to a point where fans protested outside his home to force him to leave Paris. Fans were fed up with his lackluster commitment and care for the team, as he was constantly plagued with injuries for months on end and seen partying between games.

(Image: Getty Images)

For the PSG administration, Neymar’s tenure has also had its rollercoaster of emotions. Neymar’s departure from the club marks the end of an era in which player power dominated. Football fans could never perceive the ambitions or vision of PSG, when each week one superstar, whether that be Mbappé, Neymar, or Messi, would have their moment of drama with the club.

When Messi was forced out of Barcelona in August 2021 and sent to PSG due to the club’s financial difficulties, neutrals could only dream of the potential success to come to Paris with such a star-studded team. But with a lack of true culture at the club and discipline around him, Neymar leaves without a Balon d’Or or Champions League. Even more striking, is that Neymar only won one Ligue 1 Player of the Year award. His original goal to step out of the shadow of fellow superstars and start his brand would also fail, as a 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé would outscore him in only his second season at the club.

When the end of the 2022-23 season came, PSG announced coach Christoph Galtier would be sacked and replaced by former Barcelona and Spain coach Luis Enrique. With one foot out of the door already, Enrique made it clear in his first interview that Neymar was not in his plans and, courtesy of a generous transfer fee of close to $100m, Neymar’s departure has helped dig PSG out of a financial fair play hole they have been struggling to escape for 3 seasons.

Neymar’s career since that magical 2014-15 season for Barcelona, where the young 23-year-old man had the world at his feet, has been largely underwhelming. For some, this did not come as a surprise, but for all, it comes as a great disappointment for what could have been. Instead of taking on a new challenge in Europe and trying to cement his legacy as one of the best forwards of all time, Neymar has instead chosen a gilded retirement in the Persian Gulf.

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