The Neymar Identity: football’s first real career commodity-player

We no longer want flashy, bling-bling. It’s the end of sequins.” No, not the sequins. How about diamanté? What is the official position, Nasser al-Khelaifi, president of Paris Saint-Germain, on the embroidered epaulette?

In an interview with Le Parisien this week, Khelaifi took the chance to outline his vision of a new utilitarian PSG: a PSG staffed by hungry, flat-faced hair-shirt men who look like David May with toothache.

In fairness, it was hard to square this vision of the brutalist, low-fi future with a simultaneous press release giving details of PSG’s sensational new NFT, designed by Jay Chou, a pop star, film director, art collector and magician. Each of these blockchain sequins depicts a tiger in “one of Jay Chou’s favourite poses”, made unique – seriously, bro – by “a randomised allocation process of tiger’s pose, clothes, accessories, background”, which definitely sounds like collectible high art to me.

“With time, these NFTs will find their usefulness within our common ground project in the metaverse,” PSG’s chief brand officer explained, which is, to be fair, one of the most coherent descriptions of whatever it is Paris Saint-Germain are actually doing you’re likely to find.

The chief subtext to all this is the future of Neymar Jr, from whom sequins tumble like divine dandruff, and who is entering another instalment in the drama series entitled: what exactly is Neymar doing? And how much longer is this going to happen?

Khelaifi refused to address the Neymar issue directly, although he made it clear “some will stay and some will leave”. A Neymar representative was quoted as saying “Neymar is motivated by the Parisian project”, which he should probably get as his next tattoo. But there is another point that makes this more interesting.

In between the larger headlines L’Équipe has reported that there is a countdown in play, that Neymar has a clause in his contract to the effect that should he remain at the club on 1 July his deal will automatically extend to 2027. If this is true Neymar would be 35 when that runs out. To pay him off would cost about €200m. From here this looks like a career sentence, a life encircled like no other by the inanity, the ruined world of billionaire nation-state sport.

As this uncertainty plays out there will of course be rage and scorn, because these are the main emotions Neymar is capable of generating. It isn’t hard to see why. The gleefully extravagant personal life. The theatrical reaction to being fouled, something Tim Vickery has put down to Neymar’s early days in futsal, where fouls are a constant feature and the referee always hovering.

Neymar should have given himself something more than this. His threshold, his upper limit as a creative fantasy player, is as high as you’re likely to get. He can still move in the same way, is still on his day the most beautiful footballer of his generation, a lovely thing made from kitten fur and gold thread, so light he can skate across the dew without breaking its surface.

But he is also the most obviously incomplete player of his generation, the footballer with a hole in him, a cipher for something grotesque, a currency unit, a soft power agent, a non-fungible token.

For all his riches Neymar is also a victim of this world. How do I know this? By watching the recent Neymar-doc series on Netflix, a highly effective real-time performance art piece detailing in mind-numbing detail the basic meaninglessness of Neymar’s existence.

Admittedly, this might not have been the producers’ intention, but it works very well that way. So we see Neymar leaping out of helicopters with his paid entourage (“These are my friends,” he says, to awkward laughter and no actual response). People have meetings about the Neymar Identity, how to make it bigger and more exciting. His dad looks quietly astonished by the whole thing, sitting at his massive desk in his massive office, being Neymar’s dad.

The best moments of his career at Barcelona are gone in a flash. The rape accusation, dropped over lack of evidence, comes and goes. He has a really awkward argument with his dad, presumably included to show him bravely breaking free from his bonds as a 28-year-old multimillionaire surrounded by servants.

By this time it has basically become a film about Neymar’s exhaustion and boredom, the life of the first real career commodity-footballer, sealed within his own airless billionaire-ball world. Neymar was bought to define this project. And guess what? He really does, with his sense of waste, of show, of gilded emptiness.

Neymar has spoken about being drained by the weirdness of his own life, about his fear that he may not manage to play another World Cup once he’s got through the one being staged by his paymasters. “No one knows anything about me,” he says, and this is as true at the start as it is towards the end of his documentary, where finally something has at least happened: Neymar has dyed his hair the colour of a three-day-old jellyfish corpse on a gravelly Dorset beach. He’s doing hang-ten gestures, leaping into another helicopter: another day in the life of a captive prince.

There is still hope he can create a moment of his own. Neymar has continued to produce, relentlessly, with 100 goals and 60 assists in 140 games for PSG, despite suffering 23 injuries since the last World Cup. He was back zipping about to great effect at the end of last season, the same marvel of whiplash turns, velcro touch, gliding acceleration. On the other hand the prospective new manager Christophe Galtier loves counter-pressing and having the final word. How’s that going to work out?

We have at least seen this before from PSG. Five years ago there was similar talk of new beginnings, of no more sequins, of bringing in players who would “eat the grass”. The answer then was to buy Neymar. It might well be again.