“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.
His determined but unsuccessful push to return to Barcelona this summer, which involved him even offering to pay 20m euros of his own money to force it through, had been tough enough to stomach.
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.
They felt Neymar had “humiliated” their beloved club, and judging by the reaction of the thousands who whistled and insulted Neymar at every set-piece, they were not alone.
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.
One ultras group, Les Parias Cohortis, had even handed out a statement entitled “Sod off Neymar” and declared him “the worst brought-up player in PSG history”.
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.
Neymar Jr’s name had been roundly whistled when the stadium announcer – comically misreading the zeitgeist – set out the PSG line-up with his usual gusto.
“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.”
In Neymar’s defence, he has not disappointed PSG fans much on the pitch. His strike against Strasbourg was his 52nd goal to go with 27 assists in just 58 appearances.
That latter statistic also reveals another aspect to the fans’ frustration, though.
PSG have played 112 competitive fixtures since Neymar joined the club, with serious foot injuries slicing off large swathes of his two seasons.
Most irritatingly, they occurred just when the team needed him most, contributing to Champions League exits to Real Madrid and Manchester United.
With Neymar wedded to PSG until next summer at least, he is resigned to a case of “je t’aime, moi non plus”.
“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.
The road to redemption could end at the Champions League final in Istanbul in May if he does what PSG signed him for.
“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.”
Judging by the reaction to one of the most breathtaking goals many of them are likely to see, PSG fans are certainly expecting a whole lot more from Neymar before that happens.