And so the improbable looks a reality. Normally when one of Barcelona or Real Madrid’s superstars get linked with a move away, it acts as a smokescreen in order for the player in question to haggle for an improved contract. We’ve seen it so often before. Sources close to Lionel Messi murmur that he loathes Barca’s board and would consider a new challenge in the Premier League – he nets a lucrative extension and gushing words from the club president; Cristiano Ronaldo longingly reminisces about his time at Manchester United and flirts with a return – Madrid increase his earnings and shell out another few million to his agent Jorge Mendes.
All of which makes Neymar’s impending transfer to Paris Saint Germain so surprising, in a deal that renders the previous world record fee for Paul Pogba minuscule.
The Brazilian spent months complaining of ill-treatment at the hands of Spanish authorities over tax irregularities, but the sound bet was that he’d stay. Logic dictated Barcelona’s board would move mountains to keep hold of him and satisfy his demands.
In this instance, in turns out that Barca were totally powerless to prevent their player leaving. Once PSG met the reported €220 million buyout, they were free to negotiate with the 25 year-old. Quite how the Parisians plan on funding the transfer without breaching UEFA’s financial fair play rules is another can of worms, but they don’t seem to be worrying too much given that they’ve prepared a decadent unveiling in the city centre adjacent to the Eiffel Tower.
When Qatar Sports Investment acquired control of PSG in 2011, they set out to establish them as the dominant force in French football and perennial European contenders. While the former was achieved (four Ligue 1 titles in a row before Monaco claimed last year’s trophy), the latter has proved more difficult. They’ve consistently failed at the quarter-final stage of the Champions League, so this purchase is a signal of intent.
Despite the insistence of teammates such as Gerard Pique on social media that he was going nowhere, it appears Neymar made his mind up two weeks ago. Although he was a key figure in Barcelona’s treble winning season in 2015 and was increasingly pivotal in their side towards the end of last year, he was mostly second fiddle to Lionel Messi, as most are. The prospect of becoming the alpha male in a team and leading the French club to their first ever European Cup must have proved too enticing to turn down. He and his family will also pocket substantially more money, which can only have helped sweeten the deal.
For Barca, they now face questions over what they’ll do with the fee received and how they intend to plug the sizeable hole left. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. No one can supersede a once in a generation footballer like Messi, but Neymar was the closest thing to a readymade solution. There were signs – particularly in the scarcely believable comeback against PSG in the Champions League where he scored twice and clipped a precision assist for Sergi Roberto’s winner – that he was becoming more prominent and central to the Catalan’s game-plan. Now they must replace his double figure contributions in goals and assists while also come up with an alternative succession plan for when Messi eventually vacates the stage.
Barca’s transfer window has thus far consisted of some low-key recruits (Nelson Semedo and Marlon Santos), a puzzling return (Gerard Deulofeu) and persistent links with a couple of names (Marco Verratti and Philippe Coutinho). The issue they now have to tackle is the money sitting in their accounts and how that will impact on any approaches they make. Clubs can now leverage for more in the knowledge that Barca have excess cash floating around.
One of the main issues for new Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde to redress is the makeup of the side. The peak Barca during the Pep Guardiola years were a team built on the midfield and sprinkled with the magic provided by Messi. The departure of Xavi and the additions of Neymar and Luis Suarez made them a more top heavy team. The trio were a monstrous combination, notching up record goal figures. In the later stages of Luis Enrique’s reign though, there was an over-reliance on Messi to not only score but also create.
As much as preparing for a post-Messi world, they also have to figure out how to rejuvenate their engine room. Andres Iniesta is in his 30s and starting to decline physically, while Sergio Busquets is nearing the end of his 20s himself. When Xavi was in the dying embers of his Barca career, Thiago Alcantara was identified by most as the natural heir to his throne. He was allowed leave for Bayern far too easily though and they’ve yet to truly supplant the great man.
Amidst all this upheaval, rivals Real Madrid have captured the last two Champions Leagues and are La Liga champions. They have capitalised on Barca’s dysfunctional set up and regenerated in a manner more synonymous with the Blaugrana. Zinedine Zidane’s team are in the ascendancy and may continue to be for years to come given the uncertainty at the Camp Nou. We don’t know how they’ll cope without Neymar, which makes this season all the more intriguing.