An hour into Paris Saint-Germain versus Dijon at the Parc des Princes on Wednesday there was a scramble in the Dijon penalty area, the thrilling spectacle of three world-class players tussling over the ball in the tightest of spaces.
Not that this was entirely straightforward. Some might point to the slight oddity that all three players were wearing PSG shirts. Angel Di Maria, Edinson Cavani and Neymar tangling furiously with one another in their eagerness to pick up another loose ball and shoot. It is tempting at this point to describe the Dijon goal as "beleaguered". But this would assume, incorrectly, it was ever actually leaguered in the first place.
PSG were 5-0 up, the white shirts of Dijon glimpsed only briefly, like Victorian garden ghosts, extras in someone else’s show. Half an hour later PSG were awarded a penalty to close the game out. The crowd had been lulled into an after-party vibe by then, drunk on its own gurgles of pleasure. Some chanted for “Eddie” to take the kick, a nod to a previous penalty shemozzle and to the fact Cavani was on the verge of breaking Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s PSG goal record.
There were even mischievous boos as Neymar stepped up instead, although these were transformed into cheers 10 times as loud as he tickled the ball into the corner of the net to make the final score 8-0.
The next day this would be reported as “crowd boo Neymar during wonder-show”. But these people weren’t really booing. They were amusing themselves, finding something to do at the end of a victory that left football’s most annihilating superstar vehicle 11 points clear at the top of the French league; and which provided the most extreme example to date of the disorienting ease with which Neymar is gliding his way through the domestic season.
Yes: I went to Paris and watched PSG win 8-0 against the 10th-placed team in the league. This is a shared problem now. Mismatches are common everywhere.
Manchester City are 12 points clear in the Premier League. Barcelona may have lost their unbeaten record but they are still gambolling away with La Liga.
There is a question of degree, though, and this was an astonishing night as Dijon, who have yet to spend more than €2.25 million on a player, performed with sub-zero intensity against PSG’s €5O0 million attack. Shortly after kick-off Neymar was allowed to take the ball, stop for a bit, think about it and play a return pass, all the while adjusting his socks. By the end this was a spectacle so lacking in tension or uncertainty it seemed to stray beyond the definition of sport into something else: a choreographed performance, a display, 90 minutes of beaming celebrity triumphalism.
There was at least a star turn. Even on a room-temperature night the next-best player in the world, that delightful little cartoon skill-sprite in the No 10 shirt, was jaw-droppingly good. Neymar scored four times, set up two more and produced constant throwaway moments of sublime skill. The next day he would become only the eighth player to be awarded 10 out of 10 by L’Equipe in its famed player ratings, despite having spent parts of the night strolling around, choosing his moments to snap out of standby mode.
This is an oddly static kind of brilliance. Neymar may end up fulfilling his own much-trailed destiny by becoming the world’s best player. But he is already football’s most post-modern entity, a star player who seems to spend most of his time being a star player, being Neymar, willing figurehead for the Qatari global domination project, cloudless branding receptacle, playing out his own oddly airless domestic dominance.
The highlight of the game arrived midway through the second half. Neymar picked up the ball inside his own half, facing the crowd. In one movement he turned, wriggled clear and surged forward with that gliding style, like a pond-skater on ice, beating five Dijon players without breaking stride and easing the ball into the far corner to complete a mind-boggling hat-trick.
It was an outrageous moment, one of the most breathtaking individual goals you’re likely to see, albeit against demoralised and brutally outgunned opponents. Watching it, you thought, hmm, yes. Sensational. But what, exactly, is it for?
There is, of course, an obvious answer to this. In the most basic sense Neymar is there to shift product at a club that has always fed on star power. The PSG megastore on the Champs Elysees is rammed with Neymarilia, from the wall of Neymar mannequins flanking the entrance like a headless security detail, to the Neymar couture shirts, the Warhol-style Neymar mug stack and the Neymar dolls available in three models: Neymar home kit, Neymar away kit and – a personal favourite – Neymar backwards cap home kit. Although on reflection the absence of Neymar away kit backward cap does look like a missed gap in the market.
This is all fair enough. Commercial revenues are a major dividing point at the elite level. PSG don’t want to trade for ever as a state-funded entity, drunk on its own endless petro-dope. They want the same kind of un-level playing field as all the other mega-clubs. Neymar is the current point of leverage.
For all that, this is still a strictly localised mania. Paris is too aloof, too in love with its own shadow to swoon for an athlete. This will never be a football city like Manchester or Munich, tied indissolubly to its teams. Even in the shadow of the Parc des Princes, there isn’t that fevered proximity-glamour that swirls up around other major grounds.
The crowds are orderly in the hour before kick-off. Police with machine guns yawn on every corner.
For the Dijon game the stadium is a third empty but the PSG ultras fill the 90 minutes with a range of songs and chants that sound to the English ear a bit too jolly, too festive, like the kind of football noise you get in TV movies. This is not the old agony and rage. This is a party.
With 20 minutes gone it’s 3-0. PSG are doing back-flicks and rabonas in their own half. Just before half-time Neymar produces his first otherworldly moment, beating four players before being tripped; then lifting the most beautiful little nudged free-kick into the top corner. Before the crowd can recover he’s striding off for the break pursued, as ever, by men with cameras and spotlights, an image that feels oddly apt right now.
“If Paris doesn’t win the Champions League, he’s gone. One season is all he has, he is waiting here. It’s business. There is no championnat now, nothing, it is just rest time for him. Why would you come here really? It is a different level everywhere else. I feel like he is just sleeping.”
Manolo works in a bistro just around the corner and has been a PSG fan since he was a kid. His view reflects a natural wariness among some supporters about the basking star in their midst, that gloriously well-remunerated ambassador for the 21st Emirati arrondissement.
Others shrug and enjoy it. “He is beautiful and he is ours,” says a man called Bruno draped in a PSG flag. “In England, of course, you are jealous. The Premier League has lots of money but why shouldn’t he be here? We win the Champions League and you will stop asking this.”
French journalists close to PSG are also sceptical about the idea Paris is just a bridging move to get Neymar from Catalonia to Madrid. The feeling is he will stay for two, perhaps three, years if only because Qatar don't want to sell. Take the money by all means. But it comes with strings. Just ask Marco Verratti, who seems to have been trying to leave for two years now.
With Neymar there is a fear something is being lost, that without the necessary desperation, the need to constantly stretch and fret, a genuinely grand talent will fail to find those last few vital percentage points. Ronaldo has spoken recently on the subject of Neymar-drift, describing the decision to go to Paris as “a step back”. Even Unai Emery made no secret of the fact the Dijon game was basically a trial to see who gets to play left back against Real Madrid next month, a Champions League tie that could yet define PSG’s season, perhaps even Neymar’s time at the club.
There is above all an absence of tension here, just as there is an existential pointlessness to the idea of buying success. Sport is defined by tension. It exists where systems and personalities measure themselves against one another and find their limits. Towards the end PSG brought on a €205 million centre forward. “Stop,” you felt like shouting. “You can’t kill them any more. They’re already dead.”
Kylian Mbappe duly smashed in the sixth. And for a moment the lights flashed. The PA boomed. The deeply sensual spectacle of all this glorious, entirely one-sided talent took over and it was easy to get lost in it all, to gorge yourself on the moment, a vision of football's own frictionless future that is already upon us. – Guardian service