“Neymar has to make amends” was L’Equipe’s front page headline on Saturday. The French sports daily could only have better captured the combustible mood of Paris St-Germain’s irate fans had it inserted an expletive.
In his first competitive appearance of the season in Saturday’s Ligue 1 game against Strasbourg, Neymar certainly tried. He conjured a brilliant winner with seconds left – the sort of overhead kick reserved for the virtual world for us mortals – but it was still little more than a footnote.
Of more significance were the jeers that all but drowned out the cheers following his 92nd-minute match-decider. The Parc des Princes faithful turned on the Brazilian for one reason: they no longer see Neymar as one of them.
Hearing their star player say in July that Barca’s incredible 2016-17 Champions League ‘remontada’ against PSG — orchestrated by himself, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi – ranked among his best memories in the game was the final straw.
“We invite all fans who felt hurt at one time or another to show him today he has no margin for error, and that the road to redemption will be long, very long,” read a statement by the self-appointed guardians of the temple, the Collectif Ultras Paris (CUP), before the game with Strasbourg.
The Brazilian had been given notice the backlash would be unflinching. Though he was kept on the sidelines by the club while his future was played out, PSG’s previous home games had been peppered with insults.
The club, who spent a world record 222m euros to bring him to Paris in 2017, had warned fans they would not tolerate a repeat show of vitriol with Neymar on the pitch on Saturday. Not that anyone listened.
Fans of Narcos would have been familiar with the Spanish insults aimed Neymar’s way, and one banner had been lovingly prepared for his father, who was also in the stadium: “Sell your son to the Vila Mimosa,” written in Portuguese and referring to Rio de Janeiro’s infamous red-light district.
“Our fans love the club, so it wasn’t easy for them,” said PSG boss Thomas Tuchel, referring to the transfer saga that ruptured relations between his star player and those who pay some of his 36m euros annual salary.
“In life, when you have a complicated situation, you have to accept reactions can be like that.”
That latter statistic also reveals another aspect to the fans’ frustration, though.
“It’s not the first time I’ve been booed,” he said. “It’s sad, but I know that from today, I’ll play every game as if I were playing away. I don’t need everyone to sing my name, I just want them to be behind PSG.”
The CUP’s statement had said it was “out of the question we penalise the team for the sake of one player”, but added: “As of Sunday, we’ll be indifferent as far as he is concerned.”
Arsene Wenger believes, however, the PSG fans should put up and shut up given they are blessed with one of the world’s premier players in their ranks.
“Despite all the money in football, it’s very difficult to get players who truly make the difference,” the former Arsenal manager told The Ligue 1 Show. “So when you have players like this, you have to keep them.”
While Wenger would like to see a rapprochement, the romance has undeniably gone between Neymar and Paris, but the flame may still be rekindled.
“My boy, we love you a lot, but you’re going to have to dig deep so we win the Champions League,” declared Anne Hidalgo, the French capital’s mayor.
“If he gives us what Neymar can give, I think everything will be forgiven.”