Photo: Lintao Zhang (Getty Images)

The first Clásico of the season isn’t until the end of October, but Real Madrid and Barcelona are currently in the throes of a battle with much higher stakes than any one match. After a summer’s worth of rumors and reports linking Paris Saint-Germain’s star forward Neymar to a return to Barcelona, Real Madrid have reportedly entered the fray for the Brazilian’s services. The result of the Neymar Sweepstakes could very well determine the next half-decade of European soccer.

With the transfer window closing in just 11 days, Barcelona have seemingly exhausted all options in their pursuit of Neymar. They’ve reportedly offered PSG a variety of packages that have included varying amounts of cash and about half the names on their current roster, and have even floated the idea of a loan with an option to buy next summer. So far, none have been accepted.

Advertisement

Barcelona’s strategy of slow-playing their pursuit over the entire transfer window could be a negotiating tactic, particularly if Neymar goes public and makes explicit his desire for a Barça return. By holding out until the last second as Neymar’s sole suitor, the Blaugrana could’ve forced PSG into a corner where they’d have to either accept a sub-optimal offer or risk having an angry Neymar on the books for another year. Though this strategy might have seemed sound at the start of the summer, Real Madrid’s entrance into the bidding process has changed everything.

Reports throughout this summer’s edition of NeyWatch have pegged Real Madrid as interested if not quite fully invested parties to Neymar’s potential transfer. Madrid president Florentino Pérez has long been obsessed with nabbing the Brazilian, but for a few reasons—chiefly his club’s big-money signing earlier this window of Eden Hazard, who plays the same position as Neymar—Madrid never felt like serious contenders. Until now.

While it’s hard to draw firm conclusions from any soccer reports about specific bids, there’s too much smoke coming from Madrid recently to ignore the club’s serious interest in Neymar. The latest reports say Real offered PSG a bid of €100 million, plus James Rodríguez, Keylor Navas, and the forever-despairing Gareth Bale.

The problem with that probably made-up Real offer is the same problem with so many of Barcelona’s reported offers, and is why the stronger odds are on Neymar sticking around in Paris for another season: neither Real nor Barça are all that interested in doing a straight cash deal, and PSG have little interest in taking on the players either of the Spanish clubs would be willing to offer.

Advertisement

Because of how obviously broken the Neymar-PSG relationship is, coupled with Neymar’s recent injury history and both Barça’s and Real’s sizable wage bills, neither Spanish club seems willing or possibly even able to offer a cash-only transfer fee of the size PSG would rightly demand. Thus the only way those two clubs could justify signing Neymar would be if they could get some of their largest existing salaries off the books, while also shelling out a relative pittance in cash for a player who was just sold for over €200 million just a couple years ago.

That is why Barcelona’s chances for signing Neymar were tied so closely to what happened to Philippe Coutinho, and why Coutinho’s exit on loan to Bayern Munich dealt a big blow to their hopes of getting their man back. After spending so much for Antoine Griezmann earlier this summer, Barcelona lacked the cash and the salary space to realistically fit Neymar onto the roster without breaking the bank.

Advertisement

Their best hope, then, was either convincing PSG to include Coutinho and probably another of their high earners (reports put Ivan Rakitić, Samuel Umtiti, and Nelson Semedo alongside Coutinho as makeweights at various times) in the Neymar deal, or selling Coutinho for big money and shipping that money out to PSG. When PSG, Barcelona, and Coutinho couldn’t settle on a deal to send the Brazilian to Paris, and the player instead took the loan option Bayern offered him, Barcelona’s biggest potential asset left with him.

Real’s situation looks very similar to Barça’s if you swap Hazard for Griezmann and Bale for Coutinho. Without selling Bale or convincing PSG to take him, it’s unlikely—though not impossible—Real could find the funds to make the Neymar signing economically viable.

Advertisement

Further complicating matters from Madrid’s perspective is their interest in PSG’s other big star, Kylian Mbappé. It’s no secret Madrid are infatuated with the young Frenchman. They have tried to sign him on a couple occasions in the past, once before he blew up and later when he left Monaco for PSG. And, there have been strong rumors that there is mutual interest on the parts of Real and Mbappé on potentially reigniting that courtship down the line.

Unlike Barcelona, a club whose borderline underhanded transfer tactics had already torched their relationship with PSG well before the original Neymar saga, Madrid have gone out of their way not to aggravate PSG over the years. Real must have hoped this tactful strategy of openness would work in their favor eventually when the Blancos finally did come knocking for one of PSG’s players (read: Mbappé), and it has already paid dividends now. If anyone comes away with Neymar this summer at a cut-rate price, it’ll be Real; PSG would surely prefer to sell to Real for a bargain than hand Neymar back over to Barcelona even for a square deal.

Advertisement

And so as we enter the final stretch of this interminable transfer window, we have a three-way standoff between PSG, Real Madrid, and Barcelona for the rights to the second best player in the world.

Barcelona have the most to lose; Neymar likely never would’ve hit the market in the first place had Barça not planted in his mind the possibility of a return, and if this saga of their own creation ends with the player they wanted going to their biggest rival, it would be an agonizingly painful and ironic end. Will they throw financial caution to the wind and scare up enough cash to finally push the deal over the finish line, if only to prevent Real from getting him?

Advertisement

Real’s decision here will weigh heavily on their future. Successfully signing Neymar now likely erases any chance they’ll have of signing Mbappé, the player they covet most, in a year or two. Bringing in the world’s two best left wingers in the same window doesn’t make a ton of sense on paper, but it’s not too hard to imagine a system that could facilitate both Hazard and Neymar, and Neymar’s presence (if he stays healthy) would add that level of superhuman class Real have dearly missed since Cristiano Ronaldo left. Is signing Neymar now, potentially for a bargain price, worth it even if it cements Mbappé’s place in Paris?

The questions for PSG are much different. To sell Neymar would be to openly accept ownership of an enormous L, from both an on-field and club status perspective. PSG signing Neymar from Barça was supposed to signify their coming of age as one of Europe’s true mega-clubs. Selling him back would be to admit that the Barças and Reals of the world remain PSG’s betters. Similarly, for a club that is desperate to win the Champions League, giving Neymar to one of the Spanish giants would be akin to greatly strengthening a direct rival while also weakening their own UCL chances. On the other hand, keeping Neymar would send a bad message to fans, who want him gone, and to potential future PSG players, who are already starting to see the club as a golden prison from which there is no escape.

Advertisement

Should PSG hold out for the best deal possible and then sell Neymar to one of the Spanish clubs, getting rid of a malcontent and establishing a No Drama Welcome policy that could serve them well in the future? Or should they, absent an incredible offer, keep hold of him for another year and bet on his health and his well-established drive to prove himself leading the club to greatness? Tune in next week, as we near what is sure to be a thrilling season finale of NeyWatch!