The story of Barcelona and Real Madrid’s Neymar tug of war

Words By Euan McTear Illustration by Philippe Fenner
February 12, 2018

On Wednesday evening Neymar will play at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu for just the fourth time in his entire career. That’s right, the player whose first autocomplete search term on Google España is “Neymar Real Madrid” has only taken to the stadium’s hallowed turf three times before. Some believe he will play there many more times in the future, wearing the white of Los Blancos instead of the colours of Barcelona or PSG. Some thought he might already be doing so, including current Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez.

Back in 2006, when Neymar was just 14, he spent 19 days with the giant of the Spanish capital. Already one of the most hyped-up prospects in football history, his agent Wagner Ribeiro had contacted Real Madrid – the club he’d just moved another of his clients, Robinho, to – and the trial was arranged. Neymar’s family went over with him, but the player wasn’t enjoying the experience, even if he scored 27 goals throughout his various training matches – in which current starting right-back Dani Carvajal also featured – and convinced Real Madrid to make a lucrative offer.

“Just six days into our trip to Europe, my son and I couldn’t take anymore,” his father later explained. “Everything just felt too different for us. On these occasions, you have to trust your paternal instinct. I’ve had many struggles in my life. I’m an adult, a grown man, but my son was still just a kid and I could sense that he felt overwhelmed by it all. He had grown up in a small house where four of us had shared a bedroom for much of his childhood. Even though I was in Spain with him, I could tell that he felt completely out of his comfort zone.”

The family weren’t definitively ruling out a move to Europe and he returned to Brazil and to his club Santos knowing other offers would come. It wasn’t that Spain was never going to suit, as LaLiga was the most logical league for the forward to end up playing in. It was just that the time wasn’t right.

Real Madrid came again in 2011 and thought they’d agreed a six-year deal with a transfer fee of €45m and an annual salary for the player of €5m. He even passed a medical with the club, with Real Madrid flying club doctor Carlos Díez out to perform the tests at the Hospital São Luiz-Morumbi in São Paulo. Yet other clubs were interested in the player too and Barcelona had begun to flirt with the player’s entourage, so much so that Florentino Pérez dispatched lawyer Javier López Farré to try to cross the t’s and dot the i’s. However, certain changes in Neymar and Santos’ demands forced Los Blancos to pull out.

Neymar instead penned a new deal with Santos in November of 2011, one which would run until the 2014 World Cup, but that same month Barcelona made their move. On November 15, 2011, he pledged to move to the Camp Nou in 2014, when his Santos contract expired, earning a €10m down payment there and then, with €30m to come once he officially transferred. All of a sudden, the Catalan club tugged the player away from the Santiago Bernabéu.

That pact was not made public and the club tried to hide the payment on the 178th page of that year’s accounts. However, some eagle eyes in the Catalan media spotted it and all of a sudden everyone knew that the Blaugrana had inched ahead in the marathon to sign Neymar.

Even though Neymar would have been forced to pay a penalty fee of around €40m if he broke his commitment to Barcelona, Real Madrid didn’t give up and reportedly offered him a salary which was so huge that he could have afforded to pay that penalty. Keen to avoid seeing Neymar slip through their fingers, just as he had slipped through Real Madrid’s and into theirs beforehand, Barcelona pushed to bring the player to the Camp Nou a year ahead of schedule, in 2013, something current president Josep Maria Bartomeu later blamed on then-coach Tito Vilanova, who passed away from cancer in April of 2014.

Whatever the actual reason, or reasons, for bringing forward the transfer, Neymar did appear in front of a huge crowd on a Monday afternoon in June of 2013, performing some keepy-uppies around the club’s stadium and even speaking a few words in Catalan. They had him! That was all that mattered.
It was reported by Sandro Rosell, the president at the time, that Neymar had cost “€57.1m full stop”. That was made up of the €40m total paid to Neymar via his family’s company N&N Consultoria Esportiva e Empresaria and a €17.1m transfer fee paid to Santos, one which they were furious about, believing they were entitled to more.

However, the day after Rosell was forced to resign in 2014, in large part because of the grey areas of this transfer, his replacement Bartomeu admitted that the total cost of signing the Brazilian had been €86.2m, once a signing bonus, scouting fees, payments to the player’s father, payments to the player’s charity, sponsorship money and a right-of-first-refusal fee for Santos had been added on. Subsequent fines, tax payments and bonuses mean the total was closer to €111m, not including his wages.

Despite this transfer’s huge cost to the club’s accounts and even reputation, what mattered at the end of the day was that they had won this tug of war with Real Madrid. Or so they thought…

Now, though, the teams are back in position, they are taking the strain and they are preparing to go at it again. That’s because Neymar and Barcelona did not live happily ever after, with the player leaving after just four seasons to make a world-record move to Paris Saint-Germain, who paid his €222m buy-out clause. Barcelona would never have voluntarily sold such a valuable asset directly to Real Madrid, but now they’re not the ones who get a say in the 26-year-old’s future.

While PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi may have insisted that Neymar moving to Real Madrid is “impossible”, the player’s history in the transfer market has taught us that anything is possible. With the 12-time European champions needing to replace Cristiano Ronaldo in the near future, they need a new superstar and they have the money to pull off the extraordinary. A decade and a half after they invited him for a trial in 2006, the Brazilian trickster might finally one day be theirs.

Barcelona president Bartomeu once stated that Barcelona had lost Alfredo Di Stefano to Real Madrid in an office, but not Neymar. In the end, that might not prove to be the case.

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