Real Madrid are at a crossroads. Perilously near the end of the Cristiano Ronaldo era—which, while being incredibly fruitful for the player himself, has been something of a disappointment in terms of trophies—the club needs to decide who will lead them into the next epoch, where they hope to fare better against those no-good scoundrels in Barcelona who keep trouncing them on the field and in the silverware department. According to reports, they’ve set their sights on attracting the biggest, most promising, least likely star to join their ranks: Barça’s own Neymar.
It’s no secret how much despotic Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez hates hates HATES Barcelona’s sporting and aesthetic success. Every year, he spends copious amounts of money to forge a squad capable of more beauty and dominance than his Catalan rivals. Usually, he winds up with a team overflowing with huge names and egos from all over the globe, more attacking talent than can conceivably fit on the pitch, and a team that is easily one of the best in the world. However, because of systemic flaws of imbalanced construction and/or widely-varying leadership that he appears either incapable of recognizing or uninterested in addressing, his teams have not achieved sustained periods of greatness as recognized by glory and trophies.
In contrast, Barcelona generally spend copious amounts of money filling out a core squad of homegrown players who have honed their craft together, at the same club, and under the same broad playing philosophy the club has adhered to for a very long time. This has created a generation of players and a style that at its peak has been heralded far and wide as the apotheosis of what the sport could be. Behind players like Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, David Villa, and Gerard Piqué and managers like Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola, Tito Vilanova—and despite their fair share of controversy and institutional upheaval—they were able to put together one of the greatest stretches of transcendence of all time. That they routinely thwarted Real’s aims at establishing a golden era of their own made it all the sweeter.
Real Madrid being what they are, i.e. historically the biggest and richest and most successful club on the planet, they’ve long held a certain trump card that gave them a huge leg up: the ability to either sign a player Barça really wanted, or just sign their best player outright. The most infamous example of this was the nefarious means with which the Madrid club finagled their way, with help from Franco’s government, into snatching away Alfredo Di Stéfano right from Barcelona’s grasp. It is a tactic that’s been used sparingly (though with huge effects) since, and was Pérez’s claim to fame during his first spell as club president when he pulled the trick with Luís Figo.
During Figo’s first Clásico in the wrong colors, Barça fans demonstrated that they weren’t too pleased. Photo via Getty
According to reports in the Spanish press, Pérez has a similar plot brewing involving Neymar. Pérez has now seen up close and personal just how brilliantly the Brazilian stud’s star has been shining, especially this year where, if he hasn’t become outright the second best player in the world, he’s at least staked his claim as the third and the only one with the talent, skill, and youth to hunt the Big Two down sooner rather than later. Naturally, Pérez wants to cripple Neymar’s current employers by taking him away.
Because Neymar has been considered the next big thing since he was a teenager, Real have been after him for years. When Neymar was a youngster home in Brazil with Santos, he had every big European team clamoring to bring him aboard. As time went on, it became clear that the two favorites for his signature were the two Spanish clubs, Real and Barça. Unlike the Di Stéfano case (and in part helped by some contractual funny business regarding his transfer), Barcelona beat out Real.
The rest is (recent) history. Barcelona brought Neymar into the club, where he quickly showed both his endless room for growth and how far he had to go to reach his true potential, and in the couple years since has rapidly flown higher and higher in his quest to be the best player in the world. Last season he helped Barcelona win La Liga, the Copa del Rey, and the European Cup. This year, as Messi went down due to injury, Neymar has demonstrated just how preposterously good he can be as his team’s focal point.
Now, it’s not completely inconceivable that Neymar might move eventually. The biggest potential issue here is the state of his finances. Because of an assortment of obfuscatory clauses included in Neymar’s transfer and personal salary contracts, tax authorities in Spain and Brazil have the club, the Brazilian himself, and the business entity that surrounds him under investigation. Because of the uncertainty surrounding all of this, Neymar and the club have yet to come to an agreement on a contract extension that has been in the works for almost a year now. Neymar’s father/agent has said his son will not sign an extension on his contract that is set to expire in 2018 until the legal stuff is sorted out; otherwise, Neymar will have to think about taking his talents elsewhere. These contractual and legal impasses are what motivated Manchester United to place some feelers out to gauge Neymar’s interest in becoming a Red Devil. It’s also what has apparently emboldened Real to believe they can pull another Figo and steal him away.
Even so, it’s very unlikely that Neymar leaves Barcelona any time soon, and if or when he does move on, it almost certainly won’t be to Madrid. There are so many things playing in Neymar’s favor at Barcelona right now. He’s part of quite possibly the greatest forward line in the history of the sport; he’s thriving in a team that best brings out the full compliment of his talents; he gets to feast on and set up the greatest player in the world; and he’s already at a club ready to make his bank account and trophy case very cramped.
And all of that only touches on the playing-specific reasons why Neymar will probably stick with Barça for the foreseeable future and definitely isn’t going to play for Real. Neymar’s career has been very carefully managed for a long time now, both to protect the strength of his brand by keeping him away from the type of scandals that threaten the bankability of other stars and also to prevent him from going the way of so many other rich, entitled budding stars who had all the talent in the world but lacked the infrastructure around them to focus on reaching it.
Neymar fundamentally seems like a humble young dude who loves soccer, loves winning, and just wants to have lots of fun and success while doing it. It’s hard to see him turning down the chance to spend the early part of his career with another humble soccer obsessive who just so happens to be his boyhood idol amongst an uncommonly close-knit squad of players, carry his mentor’s mantle as his club’s and the world’s premier player, and finally return to Santos at the end of his career as one of the rare non-mercenaries who had the good fortune of starring for two—and only two—of the biggest clubs in Europe and South America. Nothing of what we know about Neymar suggests that the idea of turning that down for the often suspicious, political, business-oriented environment of Real Madrid and being reviled by the fans who now love him would be even halfway appealing to him. And, fittingly, since the revelation of Real Madrid’s plot, Catalan paper Sport has said that Neymar intends to reject their approach in favor of eventually signing an extension with Barcelona.
This move actually isn’t the only way the deluded Pérez has sought to hit back at Barcelona where it would sting the most. There were reports last week that he had approached Pep Guardiola—you know, the guy who joined Barcelona as a kid, eventually starred and captained for the club during a historic period of greatness, then coached an even better version of the team as a manager during a spell of intense Barça-Madrid animus—of all people to potentially manage the club next season when his contract with Bayern Munich is set to expire. Of course, that would never, ever happen, and Guardiola told them as much.
At any rate, it’s flattering for Barcelona and their fans that Real Madrid is so desperate. It’s like being that kid who just got a drumstick from the ice cream man, taunting another kid who missed out: “Weeeee’ve got Neeeeyyyyyyymar, weeeee’ve got Neeeeyyyyyyymar! We’re gonna win it aaallllll, we’re gonna win it aaaallllll! You’ll never geeeeeeet hiiiim, you’ll never geeeeet hiiiiim!” MADRID, CABRÓN, SALUDA AL CAMPEÓN!
Top photo via AP