BARCELONA — By Thursday evening, the reality had swept across an irked Barcelona and a flabbergasted Europe to a high-reaching Qatar and beyond: An athlete really could fetch $263 million just to transfer him from one club to another, before even beginning the negotiation of his wages.
Neymar da Silva Santos Jr., the 25-year-old Brazilian known to soccer intellectuals since his midteens simply as Neymar, will leave the globally admired Barcelona club after four seasons. He will relocate to the top French league and the club Paris Saint-Germain, entities considered less upper-crust than the top Spanish league and Football Club Barcelona. The spectacular move, at a total cost of more than a half-billion dollars to his ambitious new employer, has little to do with business and more to do with prestige and political perceptions.
In the United States, if LeBron James wants to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers, he will demand a trade or wait for his lucrative contract to expire after the NBA’s 2017-2018 season, then become a free agent. It’s the straightforward way traditional U.S. professional sports leagues operate and the way players are able to change teams.
Now consider Neymar, who is under contract for almost four more years. Paris Saint-Germain wanted him very badly. Neymar wanted to spread his wings and escape the shadow of teammate Lionel Messi, winner of five of the past eight Ballon d’Or awards as the world’s top player. There are virtually no trades in international soccer. So the only way the Paris organization could acquire Neymar is through a transfer. In other words, it must buy him from Barcelona for a $263 million fee that doesn’t even include his contract, which will run in excess of $36 million annually for five years.
“The first word that comes to mind is insane,” said Marc Ganis, co-founder of Chicago-based Sportscorp, a leading sports business firm. “There’s no way that it makes any economic sense. It’s insane. It’s beyond insane.”
The transfer fee, more than double the previous record spent on a player, appears to be worth it for the owners of PSG, as the club is widely known. Many soccer observers see the move as an effort by its leaders to elevate the image of Qatar, whose government owns the French club. The oil-rich Persian Gulf state has been the subject of widespread negative publicity stemming from its controversial selection to host the 2022 World Cup and is under a trade embargo imposed by its Middle East neighbors.
The Neymar initiative, however, is consistent with PSG’s mission to extend its success beyond French borders and join the upper echelon of European soccer. The team has won four of the past five domestic league trophies but has never appeared in a Champions League title game. The most recent disappointment came in March, when PSG was the victim of the greatest comeback in the 62-year history of the event. It came against Neymar and Barcelona.
Now PSG believes it has its missing piece in Neymar.
Barcelona didn’t necessarily want to sell him. It has won seven of the past nine Spanish league titles and four of the past 12 Champions League competitions, a continent-wide tournament that is considered the most prestigious crown in global professional soccer. The club is estimated to be worth more than $3.6 billion, ranking fourth in the most recent Forbes listing of the most valuable sports franchises in the world. And Neymar is among its most valuable assets, widely regarded as the third-best player, behind Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, in the world’s most popular sport.
But all high-end players have release clauses in their contract, which means if another team tenders a transfer offer of that specified amount, the current club must sell. No one figured to hit Neymar’s astronomical figure. The previous mark was $125 million, paid last year by Manchester United to acquire French midfielder Paul Pogba from Italian power Juventus.
PSG’s efforts tested a European soccer rule known as Financial Fair Play, established in 2011 to prevent teams from falling into deep debt. Teams that violate the terms are subject to fines and other sanctions. It’s unclear whether the club has broken the rules.
Ganis said PSG will reap some economic benefits from employing Neymar, who will raise the profile of the team, sell tickets, attract sponsorships and perhaps help collect championship earnings.
“It will cover some of the cost,” Ganis said, “but there’s no way for it to make economic sense. They can only chip away at it.”
Sports-wise, it has paved a curious road, with an ambitious French club serving as a test case for how much one star might lift its fortunes. And on the other side, a proud soccer city was left bereft and miffed.
In Barcelona, there were reports of vandalism of Neymar ads around town. A tabloid newspaper showed a photo of Neymar driving off in his car under the headline “¡HASTA NUNCA!” (“See you never!”).
Outside Camp Nou stadium, where Neymar, Messi and Uruguayan Luis Suarez formed perhaps the most glamorous offensive attack in the sport’s history, you still could buy a Neymar shirt for 99 euros ($117) from the official merchandise trailer. You just couldn’t see it until a clerk withdrew it from behind the visible shirts such as Messi’s.
Photos and cartoons of Neymar appeared here and there, painted on the side of the trailer, on a machine where you could buy a commemorative Neymar coin (or a Messi coin) for 4 euros ($4.75) and on a photo near the entrance featuring Neymar and Messi seated among 15 children with a message in Catalan that translated as, “Who values you, wins.”
In the stadium parking lot, an attendant wisecracker, in Spanish, to a driver, “You want to see Neymar? Neymar is not here anymore.”
Goff contributed from Washington.
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