It was a modern transfer saga, the unprecedented football tale that will be remembered for a very long time, the telenovela that made headlines around the world for nearly three months.
Everything was in place for the biggest move of the summer. Two years after going from Spain to France for €222 million, Neymar, 27, would this time go back the other way. He, his father and their trusted ally, super-agent/intermediary Pini Zahavi, were convinced it would happen sooner rather than later too.
Yet despite being desperate to leave, the Brazilian superstar is still a PSG player. Both clubs involved are frustrated, fans are unhappy, and the player is stuck.
How did we get here? Where did this move break down?
With additional reporting from Jonathan Johnson, Eduardo Fernandez-Abascal, Moises Llorens, Dermot Corrigan, Sam Marsden and Rodrigo Faez
Neymar decides he wants to leave Paris
Marcotti: PSG won't be bullied, Neymar likely to stay put
Gab Marcotti says it would take "divine intervention" for PSG to sell Neymar to Barcelona before the transfer window closes.
At first, it looked simple: The Brazil star wanted to leave Paris Saint-Germain to return to Barcelona, and PSG were opened to selling him at the right price -- their price -- to Barcelona. Barcelona wanted him back too: In particular, his presence was desired by Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, perhaps hoping to reunite the world-class attack that yielded back-to-back La Liga titles, three Copa del Reys and the Champions League in 2014-15.
There was no need for a public fight between player and club, and there would be none of that drama either. Neymar enjoyed a good preseason with PSG, looking every bit involved and committed to the cause, smiling at times and bringing his brand of fun to the squad. He didn't play a single minute because PSG didn't want to take any risks that could have hindered his potential move.
The drama began in Paris midway through the 2018-19 season, another tough campaign for Neymar. He suffered another major injury, following his broken metatarsal a year prior, and made just 17 Ligue 1 appearances. In January, he could only watch from the box seats at the Parc des Princes as PSG were humiliatingly knocked out of the Champions League by Manchester United, who won 3-1 to overturn PSG's 2-0 first-leg win and advance on away goals.
When Neymar finally returned, he was fit enough to start against Rennes in the French Cup final at the end of April, in which PSG raced to a 2-0 lead inside 21 minutes -- Neymar scored the second -- but fell apart and went on to lose on penalties. After the game, Neymar slapped a spectator in the face and publicly criticised his teammates for their inexperience. Neymar was issued a three-match suspension for his postmatch punch.
By all accounts, this seemed to be the beginning of the end of his PSG adventures. Despite having three years left on his contract, the Brazilian had made his mind up. He wanted to leave.
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At this point, the biggest star in Paris became the Frenchman, not the Brazilian, and Neymar could probably feel the shift. He started letting people know in private that he wasn't happy in Paris and that he wanted to go back to Barcelona. However, one big change at the club would unwittingly shape the whole summer saga: Leonardo returned as sporting director on June 14, six years after leaving the club. Instead of Antero Henrique, a figurehead regarded as ineffective and incapable of the role, PSG regained a leader, a tough negotiator and a strong character. The message from Leonardo was simple: Neymar could leave, but only on PSG's terms.
Two days after Leonardo's comeback, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the PSG chairman and CEO, gave an explosive interview to France Football in which, for the first time, he opened the door to Neymar's departure.
It was an unprecedented move by PSG's owners, the Qatar royal family, to allow such a senior figure in Al-Khelaifi to speak on the record. Behind the scenes, they'd grown frustrated by Neymar's conduct, his injuries and the fact that he'd failed to take PSG to the next level. (The 2018-19 season, with just the Ligue 1 title won, was their worst since they took over the club in 2011.)
Long before any official negotiations, Barcelona had been working to exert influence on the Brazilian and apply pressure for an eventual move. On June 18, for the first time, sources at the club confessed that a deal for Neymar would be considered and was possible.
Before that, Neymar's return was not anywhere in Barcelona's offseason plans. Their summer strategy was simple: Secure Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie De Jong, add a left back (Junior Firpo), and offload some fringe first-team squad members. But the players were in contact all summer. Neymar wanted to come back, and Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez wanted him back. Messi, Suarez -- the pair went on holiday together in Ibiza -- and Neymar exchanged messages in the hopes of being reunited.
At the club, there were conflicting feelings about it. Some Barca directors didn't want Neymar back after his acrimonious exit two summers ago, while others knew that two years before the next round of presidential elections -- Barca "members" vote every six years on who will run the club -- it would be a great coup for Bartomeu to bring Neymar back. It would also, they knew, make Messi very happy as he began initial talks for a new deal at the club, so the Catalans started working on the structure of a deal. How could they afford Neymar after confirming Griezmann's move? They were confident they could do both.
In Paris, Neymar was late coming back from Brazil after the injury that led him to miss the Copa America. Despite a scheduled July 8 return date, he appeared on July 15, and his father claimed the club was aware of the delay.
By this point, tensions were running quite high, with PSG actively preparing for life without their superstar. Leonardo began looking at players to replace Neymar, making tentative plans as to how he could use the money from Neymar's exit to strengthen the squad. He held meetings with Thomas Tuchel. The German manager loves the Brazilian and wanted to keep him, but he understood the positions of the club and Neymar.
At the executive level, Leonardo, wanting to avoid a long saga, took charge of all negotiations. He spoke to Neymar's father, who told him that his son wanted to go. On July 9, Leonardo finally confirmed what everyone had known for weeks: Neymar wanted to leave and could leave if the right offer came in.
Barcelona continue their Neymar chase; Real Madrid enter the race
Leonardo put pressure on Barcelona, Neymar's former club. "If they want him, they can come now," he said in private, and on July 15, Neymar and Leonardo met for the first time. It was a short meeting, and both sides confirmed where they stood: One wanted to leave, the other was happy to let him go. There was no love there.
Leonardo and Neymar waited before having further talks; they also waited for Barcelona to make official contact. At that time, it was one of the few credible options for a transfer, given the money involved, and most importantly, it was where the player wanted to go.
Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu insisted again on July 20 that Neymar was not available, but behind the scenes, he talked to PSG. He was seen as the main person at the club pushing for a deal. The next step was to get Barca players involved.
At the beginning of August, Gerard Piqué talked about the discussions between Neymar and his former teammates. Barca midfielder Carles Alena revealed that the whole dressing room wanted the Brazilian back. It's a familiar charm offensive. From there, the two Spanish daily newspapers, Mundo Deportivo and Marca, filled their front pages with Neymar stories, running polls showing how many fans wanted him back and reporting on Messi's desire for an official reunion.
The Brazilian traveled to China with the PSG squad for their summer tour but didn't play a minute of preseason action, though he did participate in off-field activities such as PSG's kit promotion. In the luxurious Raffles hotel in Shenzhen, Neymar had long chats with some of his teammates, who tried to convince him to stay. In return, he expressed how confident he was that he had played his last game for PSG and that soon, upon returning to France, things would finally evolve. And they did.
On Aug. 11, Leonardo confirmed that talks with Barcelona were more advanced. His stance was no different: Bring me what I want, and Neymar is yours.
What PSG wanted was simple: to recoup as much as the €222 million they had paid for the player two years before. A sale price of €200 million would have been optimal, but the club left room for negotiation. However, Leonardo and PSG had doubts about Barcelona's ability to pay that kind of money. Barcelona had spent heavily on De Jong and Griezmann in 2019, leaving them with little leverage other than offering players in the deal. Leonardo was prepared for that.
Real Madrid also entered the race. It was a blessing for PSG, who'd hoped for a bidding war between the Spanish giants.
Were Real Madrid honestly interested in Neymar?
Real were never far off the conversation but never got too close, either. Madrid president Florentino Perez was briefly enamoured by the incredible coup it would have been to snatch Neymar away from Barcelona. After all, it was a long-held dream for Perez. When he was 14, Neymar trained at the Bernabeu, and Real believed he was theirs before Barcelona got a deal done first back in 2013. Their interest appeared to be rooted in revenge, a desire to not only add a significant Galactico to their squad but also get one back on the old enemy.
On July 12, stories emerged about the conversations between Madrid directors and Neymar's camp. Perez knew he has historically enjoyed a great relationship with PSG and Al Khelaifi and that they would rather sell to him than to Barcelona.
Yet it took until Aug. 6 for Real to seriously enter the race. They believed that a deal for Paul Pogba would be very hard to secure with Manchester United, and therefore, Neymar was the second Galactico option. As more time passed, they felt more confident that they could put a good offer together, either a cash-and-player deal or a straight cash deal. They also had the money, despite heavily investing in the summer.
And so, they began a public courtship through their all-star squad. On Aug. 13, it was revealed that some of their players had been calling Neymar to convince him to join them at the Bernabeu. Real got serious about Neymar and believed they were in the best position for a deal, but they never made a formal offer. PSG would have been keen on getting Vinicius Jr as part of the deal, but that brought an immediate rejection from Perez.
Why didn't Real make a proper offer? Did they think it would hinder their chances of getting Mbappé next summer? Or did they just want to trouble their longtime rivals?
Bizarrely, the two clubs were in constant contact over the final 10 days of the transfer window, eventually engineering a deal that sent Keylor Navas to the Parc des Princes, with Alphonse Areola moving in the other direction. But nothing on Neymar. It was almost as strange as Barcelona's stance on the deal from start to finish.
Barcelona, PSG can't make the deal work
On Aug. 11, PSG beat Nimes at the Parc des Princes in the first Ligue 1 game of the 2019-20 season. Neymar was absent from the squad, but the most important thing wasn't the victory or the performance: It was the hatred shown by the PSG ultras toward Neymar. They insulted him and waved banners expressing their ill will. They hadn't forgiven his incredible claim a few weeks earlier that his best footballing memory was the "Remontada" (comeback) with Barcelona against PSG in the Champions League.
Things were bad between Neymar and the Parc des Princes faithful -- but also between Neymar and Leonardo. The two men, plus the player's dad and entourage, stopped seeing eye to eye. The sporting director is charming but can be tough and short if he chooses, and he refused to be bullied or outsmarted. PSG rejected the first offer from Barcelona, received Aug. 13 after a first sit-down meeting between the two clubs. That offer included a swap with Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Rakitic. After three hours of negotiations, PSG were not happy with what the Catalans were offering.
Talks continued but without a breakthrough, which frustrated Leonardo and Neymar, and with two weeks left in the transfer window, negotiations became even more tense.
PSG were confident by that point that Barcelona couldn't afford Neymar at the price they demanded. They believed they were in a strong position, and to make their position even stronger, Leonardo began rebuilding his relationship with the Neymar clan. The Brazilian playmaker started to look happy again in Paris. He still wanted to leave but softened his stance to the point that staying would not be an issue. Furthermore, PSG expressed that they'd welcome him back.
On Aug. 20, Barcelona proposed a loan deal with an obligation to buy next summer. PSG didn't bother responding, thinking that Barcelona's wheel-and-deal approach was embarrassing for a club of their size and influence.
Barca tried different approaches. They considered including Ousmane Dembélé in the deal. Tuchel was keen on working with Dembele again, given their time together at Borussia Dortmund, but the World Cup winner with France didn't want to move.
Cash was also a problem, as Barca didn't have enough of it. On Aug. 27, there was a second meeting in Paris, this time at PSG's HQ in the posh suburbs on the east side of the French capital. Different options were discussed, with a €170 million fee loosely agreed upon -- Rakitic and Dembele's names were also on the table -- but there was no consensus as to how and when the payment would be made or how much each installment would be.
While Barcelona were more optimistic, the French champions were very sceptical. Dembélé was still uninterested in leaving the Camp Nou, and privately, PSG were almost convinced that the deal would not happen. There was one more meeting planned, on Aug. 29 in Monaco prior to the Champions League draw. Both club presidents, PSG's Al-Khelaifi and Barcelona's Bartomeu, were in attendance, but crucially, Leonardo remained in Paris with the team. Nothing meaningful could happen in his absence, and his decision to remain away showed that PSG never believed there would be a breakthrough in Monaco.
People at the club had wondered all summer if Barcelona truly wanted their former player back, and there were still plenty of questions about how Barcelona could afford their former star. On July 14, at Griezmann's unveiling, Bartomeu explained that a €35 million loan was needed to pay the full €120 million release clause in his contract. Barcelona could barely afford the former Atletico star. How could they bring back Neymar, considering what PSG were asking?
"We are talking about one of the biggest players in the world," a source said. "If you want him and you have the money, you pay and you recruit him. If you can't afford him, you say it and you are out.
"You don't waste people's time."
The end of the Neymar saga
Two incidents complicated everything.
On Aug. 15, Bartomeu had a chance to meet with Al-Khelaifi at the European Clubs Association (the group representing clubs in UEFA) meeting in Liverpool but decided not to attend at the last minute.
Two days later, Barcelona agreed to loan Coutinho to Bayern Munich, even though he was one of the players PSG were willing to include in a deal for Neymar. This marked a huge step back in negotiations. Later on Aug. 17, the Spanish champions lost Suarez and Dembélé to injury and were beaten in their la Liga opener at Athletic Bilbao to an injury-time strike by Aritz Aduriz.
After that loan offer was quickly rebuffed by Paris, it was back to the drawing board for the Catalans, and in the background, Barca sporting advisor Eric Abidal focused on finding a solution. He tried to convince Dembélé to be part of the package, but the Frenchman and his agent, Moussa Sissoko, refused everything.
Despite little progress, there was a glimmer of hope after the second meeting in Paris on Aug. 27. Following his return to Catalunya, one of Barca's directors, Javier Bordas, told the media waiting for him at the airport that the club was "closer" to bringing Neymar back.
Zahavi, the super-agent who tried to broker the deal, was in constant contact with the two clubs and the Neymar camp. Despite all his efforts and a final conversation between Bartomeu and Al-Khelaifi on Aug. 29 in Monaco, an agreement was never even close.
In the end, Barcelona spent a lot of time and energy chasing a player they were never capable of affording.
Will this saga begin again in 2020?
For now, the rehabilitation is ongoing in Paris. Neymar will be brought back into the squad and into the PSG first team. He has a lot of work to do to rebuild his relationship with the fans, but make no mistake: At his best, Neymar is a huge asset for this team. It is down to him now to recover his best form, to forget what could have been (or should have been), to put the injuries behind him and to finally be a real success in Paris.
For PSG, sporting-wise and marketing-wise, they are obviously better with the Brazilian than without in every sense. Their goal will be to forget what happened and make a fresh start, even if just for this season.
At the moment, nobody inside PSG knows what Barcelona's next move might be or when it will be. Will they come back for Neymar in January? That seems unlikely to succeed with such a complicated transfer in midseason, but a return to the negotiation table seems very likely next summer. Suarez will be 33, with one year left on his contract. Messi will be a year older too, and it would make more sense for Neymar to come back then. By then, Barca might also have more cash available.
If you liked this saga, brace yourself for a repeat next summer -- only Barcelona and Neymar will be hoping for a different ending.