Neymar to Barcelona: Inside story of PSG striker’s summer transfer saga
After months of talk, bluster, posturing, claim and counter-claim we have – for the time being – reached the end of the road. Neymar will be staying at Paris St-Germain.
As the dust settles it is worth noting that the person least surprised by this is the PSG forward himself who, despite pushing for a move for months, feared from day one this summer that this was a deal always destined to fail.
The minimum requirement for the successful outcome of any sales transaction – be it for a yard of elastic or a billionaire footballer with talent to burn – is either a willing buyer or an enthusiastic seller, or preferably both.
On this occasion, however, Barcelona felt the French champions never wanted to sell and PSG always thought the Spanish giants never wanted to buy.
This was the mutual mistrust that underscored the negotiations from the start. Even by the convoluted, conspiratorial and brain-achingly complex minefield that is football transfer negotiations, this was always going to be a uniquely unwieldy deal to bring to a conclusion.
So, how did we get here?
In April, the 27-year-old Brazilian – who moved to France from Barcelona for a world record £200m in August 2017 – started talks to renew his PSG contract.
Unfortunately, there were a number of small “issues” making him unhappy: promises PSG were not fulfilling, boos from some of the fans, a spat with fellow forward Edinson Cavani as to who should take penalties, internal divisions within the camp, a sense the Ultra fans were keener on Cavani than him; and the feeling he was not being given sufficient protection by referees.
In January, three fouls in quick succession by Strasbourg's Anthony Goncalves – all of which merited a yellow card, none of which received one – left Neymar with the foot injury that kept him out for 18 games. He was not impressed.
Despite boasting one of the world's strongest squads, some players exist in a gilded cage at PSG, and a lack of competition in a weak French Ligue 1 created a bickering, febrile atmosphere within the camp.
Neymar loves Paris – who wouldn't? – and was negotiating a new contract despite his misgivings and despite flirting for a while with a return to the Nou Camp. But then something happened soon after Barcelona lost to Liverpool in the Champions League semi-finals in May.
The captains of Barcelona – Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Sergi Roberto and Luis Suarez – had been told by president Josep Maria Bartomeu that not only would the club try to get Neymar, but also that he was confident the player would come back.
Neymar was told by players he communicates with regularly (Messi, Pique and Suarez) that the deal would happen and that he was needed if Barcelona were to regain the Champions League. It got under the Brazilian's skin, not least because he was never totally convinced by his decision to leave the Nou Camp in the first place.
Messi, 32, also suggested – given his own age – Neymar could probably become the centre of the Barcelona universe in a couple of years.
And so it began.
At this point, senior Barcelona players were told the club had not signed forward Antoine Griezmann from Atletico Madrid – but their La Liga rivals had publicly said they had seen documents confirming the deal was agreed back in March.
The problem was that everyone in Neymar's camp thought Barcelona didn't have the money – especially if, as they suspected, Griezmann was a done deal.
Barca had to take out a six-month unsecured loan for 35m euros (£31.6m) from banks to bring in the France international, so one can only imagine the financial ramifications the purchase of Neymar would have had for the club.
Meanwhile, PSG sporting director Leonardo, who returned to the club in June, muddied the waters with dismissive comments about the Brazilian in front of everyone else, to the point where Neymar stopped talking to him.
Leonardo realised too late he had crossed the line and backtracked by singing the player's praises and starting the strategy of confusion he has used over the past four months.
From the start, Barcelona felt the PSG official was saying one thing to them and the player while simultaneously following instructions from the French club's owners that Neymar should not be allowed to leave under any circumstances.
With no written offer from Barcelona forthcoming, it dawned on Neymar that the move was perhaps not going to happen, so he met club officials a few days before the first game of the season and agreed to play. The day before the match, Leonardo asked him to issue a statement that he no longer wanted to leave. Neymar baulked at the idea, telling PSG that he was ready to play but wasn't about to start making public statements.
That is not surprising. Messages were seeping out of Barcelona from his former team-mates telling him to hang on in there because it was going to happen.
In fact, Barcelona wanted to demonstrate to everyone just how committed they were to doing the deal. The Catalan club insist the leaking of details of a trip to Paris of their decision makers (but not Bartomeu) eight days ago was not of their doing – but it did not damage them because it showed them trying hard.
The bottom line was this: if Barcelona wanted Neymar it was going to cost them 215m euros (£194m). The Spanish club told PSG that players would have to be included.
Eventually, on 27 August, Barcelona submitted the only written offer they ever made – 115m euros (£107m) in cash, 15m euros (£13.5m) in bonuses and three players.
PSG decided they had to be defender Jean-Clair Todibo, midfielder Ivan Rakitic (and both reluctantly agreed to move), plus forward Ousmane Dembele on loan, although the latter swiftly said: “Non merci.”
France international Dembele was never going to move. At one point, intermediaries thought they might be able to change his mind, and the player spoke to PSG boss Thomas Tuchel on four occasions, but the French club never really forced the issue with the 22-year-old or attempted to discuss terms – which again suggested to Barcelona that they weren't that interested in doing the deal.
Nonetheless, talks continued. PSG began to um and ah about the make-up of the 15m euros in add-ons – but then, when that was agreed, they said they wanted 150m euros (£135m) up front rather than 130m euros plus bonuses.
Neymar's reaction in a letter to the club was: no problem. The Brazilian was willing to cover the shortfall in five payments of 4m euros. However, a few minutes after his message arrived, PSG told him the French Football Federation did not allow players to make such payments.
In the meantime, Real Madrid – who in the end said they weren't really that interested – had stuck their heads above the parapet and made an offer of £100m euros plus Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez and Keylor Navas. A look at Bale's salary was enough to put an end to that idea, and the Wales forward was not going to move anyway. In truth, PSG always felt Real wanted to get Neymar on the cheap while getting rid of some of their own squad, and also give their fans that feeling of schadenfreude that comes when you get one over one of your main rivals.
Italian champions Juventus also entered the fray, offering 100m euros and forward Paulo Dybala – a bid that was also rejected by PSG.
No Premier League club made an approach, although Manchester United had asked about the player when he was at Barcelona with a buyout clause of 190m euros (£172m). Neymar decided against the move.
In the end, “Spain” was the answer Neymar gave when asked where he wanted to go, suggesting he wouldn't have minded going to either of the La Liga giants. He wisely chose not to say Barcelona or nowhere, for the obvious reason that if the deal went wrong – as indeed it eventually did – he would end up looking silly.
Did Barcelona want Neymar enough? It is worth noting that when they needed to convince Frenkie de Jong to sign from Ajax, the Netherlands midfielder was visited by Bartomeu to complete the deal. At no point during the Neymar negotiations did Bartomeu meet PSG counterpart Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the player or his father. Furthermore, one of the original proposals from Barcelona (not in written form) was Philippe Coutinho plus a cash figure, which was immediately rejected by PSG for being “laughable”.
It felt like Barca were not putting all of their weight into the transfer.
In many ways it was a win-win situation for Bartomeu. It didn't happen, so he can now shrug his shoulders and say “look, we tried”, plus those who did not want the return of a player who has taken the club to court on two occasions are kept happy.
Had it happened, despite the crippling financial burden for a club already estimated to be 600m euros (£543m) in debt, Barcelona thought they might have found a way around it. If they really wanted Neymar to return that is.
As well as needing to do a lot of financial engineering to make it happen – including getting rid of two of their biggest earners – the wage structure at the Nou Camp would have been a potential headache, because Barcelona are at the very limit. No-one knew for sure whether La Liga would have sanctioned Neymar's signing, given the limits of financial fair play regulations.
Negotiations were always going to be complicated by there being no buyout clauses in France. Interestingly, though, next year Neymar will have been at PSG for three seasons and, according to Fifa regulations, can buy himself out of his contract after a fee is decided by a tribunal.
If things don't go well for Neymar, that could well be the next step. However, it's not all doom and gloom because he does a least enjoy a productive and respectful relationship with PSG boss Tuchel, and that will resume now everything has been settled.
How the various Barcelona players involved now react remains to be seen.
Will Dembele be cast as the scapegoat for refusing to facilitate the move? How will those effectively told by the club they were no longer required feel about staying? How will the players who thought Neymar would be alongside them to strengthen them feel about his non-arrival? Will Barcelona return at a later date – this time with all seriousness – for the Brazilian?
Time will tell.
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