Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 September 2019

Barcelona, Neymar and PSG face humiliating climbdown as Camp Nou return 'gets closer'

Two clubs continue to negotiate the Brazilian's transfer back to the Spanish giants - two years after his messy move to France

After four days of patting themselves on the back for all their noble sporting values, Barcelona plunged back on Wednesday into the messy, often tawdry obsession that has defined their summer.

The complicated operation that might return Neymar, football’s most expensive star, to Camp Nou within the current transfer window is reaching its endgame, as leading executives from Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona met for further discussions.

“We are getting closer,” announced the Barcelona director Javier Bordas, as the saga that has preoccupied the champions of Spain and France since June even overshadowed a ceremony the Catalan club had arranged to unveil the statue of the late Johan Cruyff at their stadium on Tuesday.

This was an almost sacred event, celebrating the permanent homage to an all-time great whose idea of how the game should be played remains a touchstone for the club more than 45 years since the Dutchman first arrived there as a player.

It had seemed nicely timed. Two nights earlier, the first win of the season, 5-2 at home to Real Betis, had Camp Nou purring about signs Cruyff’s dogmas are still honoured: Barca played slick, inventive football, and a pair of young players, Carles Perez and Ansu Fati, freshly promoted from an academy whose curriculum Cruyff helped establish made a strong impression.

Cruyff, who died in 2016, left Camp Nou once and came back for a second stint, as a history-making coach. Pep Guardiola, a distinguished Barca captain, also left, returning to lay an even stronger legacy in his second spell, as coach.

Neymar? He quit the club, aged 25, after four brilliant seasons, to join PSG in 2017, the ambitious Parisians spending €222 million (Dh904m) to activate his buyout clause. The Brazilian is no Cruyff, no Guardiola, yet the temptation to believe a second coming of Neymar to Camp Nou can be as happy a return as those heroes enjoyed is powerful.

In the worst kept secret in football, Neymar had turned restless at PSG some 18 months after moving. Now, what had seemed an improbable scenario, a reverse transfer reaches a point where it seems viable. It is a deal negotiated between clubs who openly scorn one another; involving a player who threatened legal action over allegedly unpaid bills against Barca; and a deal needing vast sums Barca have already committed elsewhere, notably on signing Antoine Griezmann for €120m.

Neymar has made it clear to PSG he wants to leave, has shown his willingness to be an uncooperative member of staff, and knows he is simply too costly to be left parked, engines turned off.

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Lionel Messi attends opening of Barcelona's Johan Cruyff Stadium - in pictures

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So PSG are obliged to find a way to draw a line under this broken partnership, abandon their once-cherished idea that Neymar would be the standard-bearer of their mission to be a European superpower.

Some of Neymar’s football at PSG has been superb. But some of his conduct has looked like the worst sort of prima donna exceptionalism. Any future employer must be wary these are traits that could surface again.

At the same time, Barcelona’s senior players, Lionel Messi prominent among them, recall him as a generous colleague, creative and incisive, and a dynamic, tuned-in member of the front three who won the club’s most recent Champions League title, in 2015: the so-called MSN, of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.

A longing for their heyday is fervent. The signing of Griezmann, from Atletico Madrid, was a search to recover the same attacking verve, and effectively the third €100m-plus attempt at it, after Philippe Coutinho, now loaned to Bayern Munich, turned out not to be their new Neymar. Nor Ousmane Dembele, who has been offered to PSG in part exchange for Neymar.

The strategy to replace Neymar has thus passed through several phases. So has the strategy to bring back Neymar. Alarm within Camp Nou was one phase, when the player acquiesced in suggestions he might go to Real Madrid.

It was a predictable and transparent accelerator of negotiations, feeding on the urgent desire of Barca’s executives to avoid a scenario where a player they lost is gained by their biggest rivals.

With five days left until the close of the transfer window, talks are focused on how to finance - at a basic price close to €170m - the return and, importantly, how to present the possibility as something other than a humiliating climbdown for all parties.

It is that for Neymar, because of his misjudgement in going to Paris. It is for Barca, for having lost their grip on a star player and then spending two years inadequately and expensively trying to replace him. And it is for PSG, a club rejected and sneered at, petulantly, by a footballer they had put so much faith in.

Updated: August 28, 2019 04:24 PM

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