Barcelona's planning for the summer transfer window took a left turn in mid-June with the publication of a sensational interview with Paris Saint-Germain's president Nasser Al-Khelaifi.
When quizzed by France Football magazine, Al-Khelaifi—who said he was keen to instil some "rigour" and professionalism in his squad after another failed UEFA Champions League campaign—made it clear that the door was open for his out-of-sorts star Neymar Jr. to leave the club, clarifying "nobody forced him to sign here."
Although it seems all three parties (the player, PSG and Barca) are interested in making it happen, a return to the Camp Nou is complicated by several factors: the poor relations between both clubs; the transfer fee involved, with PSG reportedly starting the bargaining at €300 million, according to L'Equipe (h/t AS); and Neymar Jr.'s wage demands—Mundo Deportivo's Roger Torello reported he would have to drop his net salary from €36 million to €22 million a season.
There is also the fans to consider. Barcelona's fanbase is divided about the Brazilian coming back.
"I don't think Neymar nowadays is as good as the player who first came to Barcelona six years ago," says Ernest Pujadas, president of Almogavers, one of Barcelona's "penyes" (supporters' clubs) and the most visible set of Barca fans on matchday at the Camp Nou. "He has only played half the games during his time in Paris. He's injured a lot. He has a lot of personal troubles.
"Also, we think Neymar left us for money. When he left Barcelona, he made a mistake, but we think we have moved on. We must not sign Neymar. He's a good player but he's not in the best moment of his career. It could be a botched signing. He won't find the same club that he left and we will not find the same Neymar that left our club two years ago."
Sergi Esteban, president of Penya Bou, another Barcelona supporters' club, has mixed feelings about the prospect of Neymar's return: "The transfer of Neymar will be complicated. I would like Neymar to return, but not at an extortionate price. It's a risky signing. There are people in Barcelona who hated the way he departed the club.
"It's difficult to know how he would be received. If he starts playing well and scoring goals, all will be forgotten, but he will always have on his shoulders a bit of guilt because of the way he left the last time, and then any mistake or anything that goes wrong, fans will jump on him."
Esteban does concede, however, that he would prefer to see Neymar Jr. in a Barca jersey next season than FIFA World Cup winner Antoine Griezmann, who is expected to be unveiled as a Barcelona player next week before Ernesto Valverde's pre-season training begins on July 15.
The Frenchman enraged Barcelona fans last season when he publicly rejected a move to Barca by broadcasting a mawkish documentary, La Decision, on the eve of the FIFA World Cup finals.
"I wouldn't like to see Griezmann coming here," says Esteban. "The fans are fed up with Griezmann because of what happened last year when it seemed he would be coming, and we had the documentary, and he ends up staying at Atletico Madrid. What I don't understand is that he could have come for €100 million last season, but this season he will cost €120 million—that's €20 million more for a player who is one year older.
"The fault is with Barca. I think Barca needs more a centre forward who can take over from Luis Suarez. Griezmann is not a centre forward; he's similar to Messi but obviously not as good. I don't know how Barca will assimilate him.
"We also need a back-up for Jordi Alba. If both Griezmann and Neymar come how could the four—including Messi and Suarez—fit in the same team? Valverde is not very daring. He doesn't go all out in attack. He likes to try and have some control. I think instead of signing Griezmann what the team needs is to recuperate Philippe Coutinho. He's a good player."
Pujadas agrees that Barca's fans are upset at the way Griezmann's documentary "mocked" them last year. He would prefer if the club signed a younger, cheaper striker like Luka Jovic, who was snapped up by rivals Real Madrid.
He also points to other holes that need to be plugged in squad composition, like fresh blood to support and ultimately replace Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets, both in their 30s, in the spine of the team. It looks like Barcelona's long hunt for Ajax central defender Matthijs de Ligt—who was seen as a natural successor to Pique—will come to nothing, as Juventus reportedly close in on a deal, per the Guardian's Fabrizio Romano.
"Barca's transfer strategy is like Yin and Yang," says Pujadas. "They sign really good players like Frenkie de Jong. I'm really happy with him. I think he will be a great player in future years. He's young. He has already achieved a lot. But the club is also trying to sign high-profile players like Griezmann just to have a big impact on the market in terms of shirt sales because the brand is important."
The pursuit of Neymar Jr. suggests there is an opportunist approach to Barcelona's transfer policy this summer, which follows unusual signings over the last couple of years such as Paulinho (both his arrival and departure), Malcom, Kevin-Prince Boateng and the last-minute collapse of the deal to bring Jean Michael Seri to the club in 2017.
"I believe the club doesn't have a transfer plan this summer," says Inaki Lorda, a Barcelona-based journalist with football magazine Panenka. "With the sudden exit of Neymar to PSG in 2017, they basically tried to solve his departure by bringing in Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele. They are just finding out they made a mistake, completely.
"A plan for the youth academy doesn't exist. That's obvious. For example, in Spain's Under-21 European Championship winning team at the weekend, there wasn't one player from Barca on it. Except Dani Olmo, but he left for Dinamo Zagreb five years ago. They're improvising. They're trying to get powerful players in like Griezmann and Neymar. Their objective is to sign stars who will satisfy the public."
The club is renowned globally for the success of its youth academy, but the last flush of players from a golden generation are slowly departing the stage.
The likes of Messi, Pique and Busquets only have a few years left before they follow Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol and Andres Iniesta out the big gate at the Camp Nou. There is no sign—bar a few glimmerings with the emergence of Carles Alena and Riqui Puig—that there is another tranche of homegrown players to come in. It's not a priority with the club.
"It would be great to play a team full of players from the "cantera" (youth academy), but to get players like Xavi, Iniesta and Messi in the same generation was a miracle," says Esteban.
"The problem of Barca's fans is that we want to win everything always. There is no patience. If the club said, ‘We're not going to make any signings for three seasons; we're going to blood players from the academy' the public would go mad. They want results, not experimentation. To get guaranteed world-class players it's easier to look elsewhere.
"For example, when we had Louis van Gaal as trainer at Barcelona. He had a very good team—Rivaldo, Luis Figo and a lot of Dutch players—but he still gave debuts to Victor Valdes, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, the backbone of the team which later won three European Cups [2006, 2009, 2011].
"Still the fans berated Van Gaal because he didn't win the Champions League—Real Madrid was winning Champions League titles at the time—even though he won back-to-back league titles. Fans are demanding."
There is pressure to win the UEFA Champions League again—to ensure the last years of Messi's career aren't squandered and to try to match Real Madrid's recent run of success in the tournament—and club president Josep Maria Bartomeu is going all out to make a bang before his seven years in office concludes. He's ready to roll the dice.
"The importance of fans' opinion in transfers doesn't matter," says Lorda. "Bartomeu has two years to run in his term as president—two years in which he was to win the Champions League. Done and done. What will be in his head is to get the four stars up top—Messi, Suarez, Griezmann and Neymar—and let's see what happens.
"They would have to go out more like they're fighting in a boxing match than playing in a game of football—trying to outscore the opposition. The team could break down in big matches like it did against Liverpool at Anfield. It is possible, but Bartomeu has an obsession now with the Champions League. In his thinking, it's the easiest route to that goal. What the people and the critics say won't matter to him. If the team wins and scores lots of goals, the applause will come."
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