In the 89th minute, Zlatan Ibrahimovic left the field. PSG were playing Nantes at the Parc des Princes on the final day of the 2015-16 season and the game was halted as his children ran on to the pitch wearing shirts with the words “king” and “legend” printed on the back. Ibrahimovic received a standing ovation as he waved to the crowd and sauntered off. No substitution was made. PSG played on with 10 men.
Ibrahimovic had become a PSG great during his four seasons in France but, even by his standards, it was an ostentatious display of power and ego, and perhaps the pinnacle of PSG pandering to their star players during the QSI era. There was no doubt who ruled the dressing room. Now, after a relatively harmonious period, another split is forming between two players with Zlatan-esque influence, Kylian Mbappé and Neymar.
Neymar has been the central figure at PSG for much of his five years in France and, after drifting through the last 18 months, his lightning start to the season has rejuvenated his standing within the squad. Perhaps for the first time, he looks like the player PSG thought they had signed in 2017. In three games this season, he has contributed five goals and three assists and, although such numbers are not uncommon, his consistently ruthless demeanour is.
In recent times, Neymar has flickered between the showman and the matchwinner. The focused Neymar was decisive at times last season, most memorably in late wins over Lyon and Metz. However, the showboating, apathetic Neymar has also been a common sight, especially in Ligue 1 games at the Parc des Princes. His lack of motivation seemed to be a product of his mood. As a result, he lacked the intensity (and perhaps even fitness) required to be decisive at the key moments.
The 30-year-old’s career was at risk of petering out, with Lionel Messi and Mbappé now having more influence, both in the dressing room and boardroom. Very few other clubs could afford to sign the Brazilians and, after such an underwhelming year, even fewer were inclined to make a move.
Worryingly for the rest of the continent, however, this season’s Neymar has been all business. His precise, intense and unusually physical performances have led PSG to three blowout wins, scoring 14 times in the process, and he has been the standout player in every game. His brace, including his first goal from a direct free-kick in 47 attempts, helped PSG beat Nantes 4-0 in the Trophée des Champions. He produced a hat-trick of assists and a rifled finish as PSG beat Clermont 5-0 on the opening weekend of the Ligue 1 season, before another brace helped them thrash a dangerous Montpellier side 5-2 on Saturday.
Bizarrely, his rejuvenation is causing social and political unrest at the club and within the squad. Various outlets – including us at Get French Football News and French investigative journalist Romain Molina – have reported that, since signing a new three-year deal with PSG rather than joining Real Madrid this summer, Mbappé and his coterie have been actively pursuing Neymar’s sale.
Reports emerged earlier this summer that PSG’s new de-facto sporting director Luís Campos had earmarked Neymar for an exit, with Manchester City offered the chance to buy him and Chelsea also interested. Having coasted through much of last season, Neymar’s attitude and performances irked the club’s management, including the owners, QSI. However, seemingly motivated by criticism and the news the club wanted him gone, Neymar has started the campaign in the best form of his PSG career. Given that he has a contract until 2027, has no intention of leaving and is playing brilliantly, a sale is now both increasingly unlikely and far tougher to justify for the club.
Neymar and Mbappé became fast friends when they joined PSG in 2017, but their relationship has broken down over the last six months. When his future was in doubt last season, Mbappé moved away from the large Spanish-speaking contingent in the squad, including Neymar and Messi, and toward the Francophone group, striking up a close bond with right-back Achraf Hakimi.
When PSG convinced Mbappé to stay, they reportedly gave him unprecedented oversight on decision-making at the club; his ego and petulance have become more obvious since. This weekend he, perhaps accurately, ranked himself as second favourite to win the Ballon d’Or behind Karim Benzema, before displaying some odd behaviour during the game. At one point in it, while PSG were on the counterattack, he turned away from the play in frustration after Vitinha failed to pass to him. His team carried on attacking without him and, had he not given up and stopped running, he could have scored a goal at the back post. RMC and L’Équipe later reported that Mbappé had experienced “personal issues” before the game.
Neymar’s form, contract and refusal to leave should give Mbappé’s clan pause over pursuing the Brazilian’s sale, but Mbappé’s new influence and status at PSG, plus his own burgeoning self-importance, suggest he will keep pushing. According to sources contacted by GFFN, Mbappé now thinks there is only room for two of him, Messi and Neymar in the team and, having learned a lot from Neymar over the last five years, he now wants to learn from Messi instead.
The antipathy between the pair over the weekend seems to be mutual. After Mbappé missed a penalty, Neymar liked a tweet suggesting Mbappé has been given priority on penalties over Neymar due to a clause in his contract and that he “owns” PSG.
Although squad cliques have been an issue over the last decade, the divide between Neymar and Mbappé could split the club in two. Ibrahimovic was once the undisputed “king” of the PSG dressing room; now the club has two warring kings. There may not be room for both.