PARIS: He has dazzled Rio’s imposing Maracana and Barcelona’s storied Camp Nou, but it’s Guingamp’s humble 17,000-capacity Stade du Rouduorou, tucked away in sleepy Brittany, which on Sunday greets Neymar, the world’s most expensive footballer.
With the mundanity of transfer paperwork finally resolved, the 25-year-old Brazilian magician will line up for Paris Saint-Germain for the first time since his mind-boggling 222 million euro (US$261 million) move from Barcelona.
“He’s physically ready to play the whole ninety minutes,” PSG coach Unai Emery told AFP.
“He’s been working well and we looked hard at tactics and free-kicks. We all want him in the starting eleven, he’s a player we need in the group.”
Even Guingamp coach Antoine Kombouaré, himself a former PSG boss, wants Neymar to play despite the potential for destruction at the feet of the Brazilian superstar.
“I want the fans to come Sunday to see Guingamp win... preferably against a side with Neymar in it.
“But the people here are not talking about Neymar. The people here support their team.”
It will be a major culture shock for Neymar in a town which has a population of just 7,000 and is best known for its annual Breton dance showcase, the Saint Loup Festival which draws visitors from around the world.
However, that’s not to say that Guingamp do not have football pedigree.
They were French Cup winners in 2009 and 2014 and last season beat PSG 2-1 in the corresponding league fixture, the capital city club’s second defeat in four visits to Guingamp since their hosts were promoted in 2013.
Furthermore, former Chelsea and Ivory Coast star Didier Drogba spent a season at the club in 2002/2003.
“We could have filled a stadium of 40,000 seats with no problem at all,” said Guingamp president Bertrand Desplat whose club budget is an eighth of what PSG paid for Neymar.
“Remember the star of the show is going to be Neymar and for us we want to welcome this very special player and his team in the best conditions possible.”
Journalists from far and wide are expected for the game – the ground’s press tribune, built to hold 80 people, has been extended to cater for 350.
A total of 145 stewards will be on duty at the ground – 30 more than usual.
Meanwhile, French media speculated over who in the expensively-assembled PSG team will make way for Neymar.
Le Parisien suggested it will be Javier Pastore, the Argentine star who was the first major signing after PSG were bought by their ambitious Qatari owners.
“After first giving up his No.10 shirt, will he (Pastore) now give him (Neymar) his place in the team?” Le Parisien asked of the player who took up the No.10 shirt after Zlatan Ibrahimovic left for Manchester United last season, only to hand it to the Brazilian this summer.
“Neymar will start on the left at the cost of Pastore.”
Sports daily L’Equipe saw things differently, though.
“Neymar – the football version,” ran their headline on Saturday in a light-hearted reference to how the most expensive transfer in football history has dominated news despite Neymar not yet having kicked a ball in anger.
“A trio of Neymar, Pastore and Angel di Maria will support (striker) Ederson Cavani,” predicted L’Equipe.
The match in Guingamp kicks-off at 1900GMT.
An hour later, and around 1,200km further south, Barcelona will start their first competitive match without Neymar by facing bitter rivals Real Madrid in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup.
Barca’s scattergun approach to finding a replacement for Neymar has so far been unsuccessful with bids for Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele of Borussia Dortmund rebuffed.
Gerard Deulofeu was handed Neymar’s role alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez up front in Monday’s 5-0 friendly win over Chapecoense on his return to the club after spells at Everton and AC Milan.
And the Spanish international took his chance with a goal and two assists in just 45 minutes on the field.--AFP