As the officials of Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain again met on Tuesday, all of the usual pleasantries were exchanged and business was discussed, but there was one thing left unsaid. It is something that is actually otherwise being stated with great certainty around the top levels of the Bernabeu: that Neymar is “definitely” coming to Real in the summer.
Those who state it do so with surprisingly striking confidence, and it is being put down to much more than the typical arrogance of the Spanish champions in the market. There is something much more concrete to it.
What that is remains to be seen but the bottom line is that, just as Qatar-owned PSG aim to bring one of football’s most lavishly speculative projects to fruition, Real are planning one of their most sensational ever transfer windows. Neymar is at the centre of both, and that makes this most significant of Champions League last-16 ties all the more important.
There is a big game beyond the game, that the action on the pitch could well condition. Wednesday’s match in the Bernabeu might well be the first pitch, and not just influence this Champions League season, but those to come. That wider game beyond the game is actually driven by the same differences that make this tie so engaging.
There is now something that appears tired and under-funded at Real, and they are left trying to figure out how to outmanoeuvre the brash new money that has made PSG so fearsome, to re-assert their traditional power. It all comes together so nicely for the game, but not necessarily for this vaunted transfer.
The problem for Real is not just the immediate case of convincing PSG to sell Neymar when there would seem no incentive, but the wider one of how they raise such money in the modern market.
That is one other reason those close to the situation have been stunned by the confidence of some at Real. The game has changed significantly.
This was already a world where high-level sources say PSG’s strategy has been to “short-squeeze” the football market by greatly escalating the size of fees and wages, knowing that only the two Manchester clubs could compete in the medium-term. The effects were already instantly seen in the summer when Real just couldn’t get near what was being offered for Kylian Mbappe. They were just blown out of the water, something they’re not accustomed to. That is something else that hangs over this tie, and makes the pursuit of Neymar all the more pointed.
To add to that, Real have now finally fallen behind Manchester United in terms of revenue and the trend is only going one way. It is one big reason why they have not bought a big star since 2014, and why they so quickly look in drastic need of an overhaul despite in June becoming the first club to retain the modern Champions League.
That victory might well have been the last stand of a great football team as well as the last stage of a grand football era.
Twenty years when Spain – or, more specifically, the Real-Barcelona duopoly – was the obvious peak destination for players may now be coming to an end. Ramon Calderon was Bernabeu president between 2006 and 2009 and negotiated some of the club’s biggest deals, including the world-record transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo, and he does have worries.
“It’s a problem,” Calderon tells The Independent. “There’s first of all the issue of the money that’s coming into the Premier League. With what Sky and the broadcasters pay, Spain is getting three times less than that. Then you have the entry of money from countries like Qatar, Abu Dhabi, that’s an issue we will have to see with Financial Fair Play… but Real Madrid and Barca are not companies in the same way, they are registered associations. So they have to try and raise money from ordinary means. In other countries, there are other routes to money. They can resolve problems that Real and Barca can’t. It’s a handicap.
“I believe the money problem will make things more difficult. We have already seen a few players that Real wanted, but couldn’t get due to the money you have to pay. It’s also something very important we managed [between 2006 and 2009]. In this market, it’s said wages should never be more than 70 per cent of what the club can bring in. I imagined that at 47, 48 per cent, but now I see it’s at nearly 75 per cent. That’s a problem. Economically, you have to be very careful that the club doesn’t go into risk, like what happened [at Real] in 2000.
“Effectively, that’s an advantage that clubs are going to have compared to Barca and Real.”
Some close to Real do feel that more money is coming from those ordinary means. They point to the renewal of the Adidas deal and forthcoming stadium sponsorship. There might also be the necessary sale of players from a squad that had until September been considered maybe the most powerful ever put together in the game.
As Real plan a huge overhaul – and potentially the end of the Cristiano Ronaldo era – word has got around top European clubs that a lot of good players could be available from the Bernabeu. It is expected to be one of the busiest summer windows in years, and not just because of the size of possible deals, but the amount of them. It is also anticipated that Real may try and include Ronaldo in any major deal. The very fact he is now considered sellable is itself such a historical juncture.
Some equally big names and key players like Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Keylor Navas will also be available, maybe even Luka Modric, since Real want to add Neymar, change their attack from ‘the BCN’ and bring in a top-class goalkeeper.
It is ironically a similar dynamic, but for a different reason, that could actually aid them with the capture of the Brazilian.
PSG obviously have much more available cash than Real, but Financial Fair Play means they can’t spend it so readily, so constantly need to move on players to do so. There might be a similar big sale there. Both Real and PSG are interested in Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois and his representatives have been told that, while Real won’t decide on any concrete move until April, it is likely to be even later with the French club since they first of all have to jettison a certain amount of players by the end of June.
That is only hastened this summer by the need to finally pay Monaco £166m for Mbappe, since he is still just on loan. Losing there could yet help Real win with Neymar.
It is when it comes to this topic that some of the more conspiratorial minds around European football have concocted all manner of theories on why the Brazilian left Barca in the first place, on how the “good friendship” between Florentino Perez and PSG president Nasser Al Khelaifi might be so important. That is despite Al Khelaifi publicly insisting that Neymar’s sale is “impossible”.
Calderon’s experience of such situations means he feels it could all come down to something much more simple.
“Like always, it’s the desire of the player that’s key. If he wants to go, that’s the primary factor. If he doesn’t, nothing will happen. If he wants to, the next thing is to know the conditions. From what we’ve read and heard, and because of what it took to get Neymar to PSG, there are also conditions that would allow his exit. That seems reasonable. I don’t know what those conditions are, and what it would take, what the limit would be.
“In 2008, when we went to pay £80m for Ronaldo, the whole world thought it was so much. Now we don’t know where the limit is. If it is €300m, you’ve then got the wage of the player and that could be €50m net. We’re entering into a situation where things get complicated.”
That’s also why the tie could simplify things. Calderon is asked generally about the power Real have had in the market, and how their proud “prestige” has served them in such negotiations – and can’t help pointing to the humiliation PSG suffered at this exact stage of the competition last year. That amazing 6-1 defeat to Barcelona is all the more relevant in a world where Neymar is said to have felt like he and his entourage “overestimated the strength of the French league”.
“That quality [of prestige] is like wine,” Calderon says. “It’s a question of time. It’s true that PSG have built a fantastic team, through a lot of money but it’s a very good team. Now they have to show they can win. I think what happened last year with Barcelona is instructive. No team that has that prestige, that has that culture from its history, loses in the Champions League like that: conceding three goals in 10 minutes, or going out after winning 4-0.
“That is something they have to change, to demonstrate that they’re winners.
“I think when players think about the most important clubs, when they see the history, when they see the museum full of trophies – like when they see that Real were the most successful club of the 20th century – they have that confidence they are winners.”
So, what will a clearly unsettled Neymar see? It’s one more reason why victory for Real is so important.