World's most expensive footballer will make his first start for PSG on Sunday against a club famed for their trademark underdog status.
Guingamp to host Neymar's PSG debut but don't be fooled by the modest setting
Five years ago this weekend, Neymar, then the boy wonder of Brazil, played in an Olympic Games final for his country at Wembley Stadium.
More than 86,000 people showed up to see Brazil try in vain to end their peculiar hoodoo, a shortage of gold medals in their favourite sport. Just over a year later, Neymar made his competitive debut for Barcelona.
Seventy-three thousand were at Camp Nou to see Levante thrashed 7-1, and to get a first look at the pricey young Brazilian. The following summer, at the World Cup, Neymar had the eyes of hundreds of millions on him, chief carrier of the hosts’ hopes in their opening match of the tournament in Sao Paulo, the fifth most populated city on earth.
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Neymar's first outing as the most expensive footballer in the history of his sport may feel a little different.
His debut for Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), who on Friday had it confirmed that their €222 million (Dh964.6m) payment to Barcelona for the 25-year-old forward had been cleared and approved, should take place at Guingamp on Sunday.
And Guingamp is not a place much used to limelight.
Indeed, there are those in the commune of Guingamp, in France's northwest region of Brittany, who can remember when the Roudourou district was made up of farmers’ smallholdings, just rough agricultural land.
The stadium that now houses a Ligue 1 club there still seems a little out of place to some. Guingamp’s home, with a capacity for well under 20,000 spectators, is outsized. The population of Guingamp, less than 8,000, would fill less than half of the Roudourou arena.
Naturally, for Sunday’s second fixture of the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season, tickets are sold out.
The visits of PSG will always bring in more than the usual number of Bretons who, for much of the 21st century, have given Guingamp a support base from well beyond the borders of the town itself.
But as an illustration of the wealth gap in French football, Neymar could barely have found a more telling spot to make his first impression as the symbol PSG's far-reaching ambitions.
Guingamp, or En Avant Guingamp, to give them their full name, have an annual budget, at under €30m, that is barely five per cent of PSG's. They were in the third tier of French football a little over six years ago, and have spent just nine of their 105 years of existence in the top flight.
Yet, a capacity to land a powerful underdog’s punch is a trademark. Twice they have won the French Cup, most recently in 2014, a year after regaining a place in Ligue 1. They reached the knockout phase of the Europa League on the back of that triumph.
Last December, just over 18,000 watched Guingamp beat PSG at the Roudourou, a defeat that contributed to the Parisians losing their grip on a domestic title they had held since 2013.
A sweet day for Guingamp manager Antoine Kombourare as he has history with PSG. He played there with distinction in the 1990s, and was PSG's manager when the club were taken over by their Qatari patrons in 2011. The respected Kombouare was removed fairly quickly, replaced by the higher-profile Carlo Ancelotti.
Kombouare has watched PSG’s restless drive for international status from distance since, and he told a news conference: “If Neymar makes his debut here, all the better for the spectacle.
“I can assure you of one thing. The stadium will be full but the people here will come, as usual, to see their team. We have to abstract ourselves from everything being said and written about Neymar and PSG.”
Above all, the Guingamp right-back Jordan Ikoko must do so. It will be his job to mark Neymar, who, it is anticipated, will be asked to work his magic on PSG from a starting position on the left of the attack.
Ikoko, a Congo international, was once on the staff at PSG, a graduate of the club’s academy, where he trained in touching distance of the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the stellar Parisian before Neymar’s signing, but was never picked for the first XI.
“It will be the first time I have played against a world-class star like Neymar,” Ikoko said. “I’m not scared. I won’t be overly aggressive, like some people have asked to me to be, but I won’t be just another spectator either.”