PSG's Neymar will be seen as natural fit at Real Madrid - whatever happens in Champions League tie
Primera Liga club, who lost out to rivals Barcelona in race to sign Brazilian in 2011, are still likely to covet his signature irrespective of their European fate ahead of last-16, first-leg tie in Madrid on Wednesday, writes Ian Hawkey
In September 2011, a delegation of senior Real Madrid executives flew to Sao Paulo to carry out a coup.
They met with their opposite numbers at Santos, with representatives of Neymar and with the third-party investors who held a portion of the player’s commercial rights. A member of Madrid’s medical staff accompanied Neymar to Sao Luis hospital where he passed a medical.
The player was 19 years old at the time, but already more than just a star. Brazilians had started using the phrase ‘Neymarketing’ to refer to the way the brilliance of the young man’s football had been yoked on to a cultivated stardom, with lucrative corporate endorsements and sponsorships.
Real Madrid liked his brilliance on the pitch and the charisma, his off-the-field profile. This was a footballer that could fit Madrid’s glamorous brand for years to come.
The key principles of a deal seemed to be in place for Neymar to join Madrid in 2012, stride out at the Bernabeu stadium after the London Olympics, where he spearheaded Brazil to the silver medal.
But the transfer was never closed. The fact that Neymar was bound not only to Santos, but a third-party institution complicated matters. But so did the keen pursuit of him by Barcelona, who Madrid had hoped to nudge aside with their expedition to Sao Paulo.
As the wrestle between the Spanish superclubs and rivals intensified, the costs auctioned up and up, over months and months. Finally Barcelona emerged as the successful suitors, although the eventual cost to the Catalan club of signing Neymar in 2013 - once all the parties had been cut in - would rise to towards €150 million (Dh680m).
The figure Madrid thought they were settling on back in 2011 was around €60m.
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Real Madrid president Florentino Perez is bound to reflect on that past saga on Wednesday night when Neymar crosses the touchline at the Bernabeu as the most expensive footballer in history to gatecrash the VIP room of European club football. After all, the Brazilian is the €222m flag-bearer of Paris Saint-Germain’s bold ambitions.
Perez will acknowledge that Madrid and Barcelona had the right instincts about Neymar's potential when they battled over the prodigy. He will also feel anxious that the matured Neymar might show at the Bernabeu in this seismic Champions League tie all the match-winning excellence Perez envisaged all those years ago.
Neymar turned 26 a little more than a week ago. It was an occasion celebrated with a long, well-attended party in Paris, where he has made the anticipated splash in the six months since PSG activated the player’s huge release clause at Barcelona.
Nineteen goals and 12 assists in his 18 Ligue 1 matches so far. Six goals in six outings in the Champions League. A perfect start? Not quite.
There was a high-profile squabble over who gets to take PSG’s penalties with Edinson Cavani, the club’s leading goalscorer. It is one of a number of storylines that suggest Neymar’s elevated status at PSG has led him to expect he has a right to privileges above those of his colleagues.
“It’s true,” PSG midfielder Adrian Rabiot said last week, “Neymar, and Kylian Mbappe [the €160m teenager signed from Monaco] do have some special privileges, but it doesn’t bother me.”
But the story that recurs again and again is the one that has Neymar tiring of the French league, which PSG are dominating, and returning to Spain, and specifically to Real Madrid, as the obvious superstar replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo, perhaps in the summer of 2019.
Despite the past snub from Neymar and despite the goals he used to score at the Bernabeu for Barcelona – two in three visits – Madrid still see him as a natural fit at a club that regards itself as the natural home of superstars.
Neymar at a future Madrid is such a prevalent theme that the Spanish prime minister was even asked about the possibility on Monday. “I’m not sure I’d like that,” replied Mariano Rajoy, praising the current Madrid forward line of Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale.
Those three – the so-called BBC – are expected to start on Wednesday night. Ronaldo is emboldened by a hat-trick on Saturday against Real Sociedad, a result that cheered Madrid in a season where their inconsistency - particularly at home - has already collapsed the defence of their league title and put them out of the Copa del Rey.
“We haven’t done justice to our ambitions, and this season is not turning out like that last one,” said manager Zinedine Zidane, who is chasing his and Madrid’s third successive Champions League trophy. “Everybody needs to give a bit more, me included."
Might Neymar and company be Zidane's nemesis? "I don’t think about whether my future hangs on this game. I think in the present.”
Updated: February 14, 2018 01:12 PM