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Why battle between Real Madrid and Barcelona for Neymar is one neither wants to lose... but can't afford to win

Neymar trains with PSG 
The Neymar episode has become a strange kind of death match for Spain's big two Credit: AFP

The battle between Real Madrid and Barcelona to bring Neymar back to Spain this summer is one like no other: for the sake of their prestige neither club feel like they can lose, and yet from a financial perspective it is also a transfer that neither can afford to win.

After years of overspending – the two highest wage bills in European football and two extensive stadium redevelopments that will lock up revenue for years to come – the Neymar episode has become a strange kind of death match for Spain’s big two. The pressure each feel from the other to prevail has meant that the footballer whose £198 million transfer fee to Paris St-Germain in 2017 remains the biggest ever, is being fought over by two clubs with very little available cash.

Barcelona’s detailed half-year accounts are four months overdue, but even the little information available does not bode well. 

The headline figure for the past financial year, released this month, reported that Barcelona made a net profit of just €4.5 million (£4.17million), despite player sales of around €75 million in the final few weeks at the end of June. 

Last October they projected a total club annual wage bill, including amortisation costs, of €633 million for the financial year ended in June, one in which football props up all other loss-making sports. That wage structure must now accommodate Neymar, one of many reasons why they have been so reluctant to offer PSG a cash fee.

While at Barcelona, Neymar formed a formidable strikeforce with Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi Credit: AP

Having bought Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong this summer, salary costs will have increased again. For all their indignation at Neymar’s original sale, Barcelona’s accounts for 2017-18, the period in which he was sold, published last October, revealed that without the fee received, then €222 million, the club would have made a loss. Barcelona’s results also revealed that they were borrowing to pay their wage bill: opening a €140 million credit line with a New York-based lender during the 2017-18 season.

Remarkably, it seems that Barcelona are the favourites to re-sign a player whose original signing in 2013 led to the resignation of then president Sandro Rosell over allegations that the club’s funds had been misused to do the deal. Rosell, who later served a jail sentence for a separate criminal conviction, against which he has appealed, was succeeded as president by Josep Maria Bartomeu, who seems just as determined to land the Brazilian at all costs.

Unlike Real Madrid, Barcelona at least have a piece to play: the Brazilian Philippe Coutinho, one of two players originally signed to fill the Neymar void and of interest to PSG in part exchange. There were reports of meetings between representatives of Barcelona and PSG in Paris yesterday.

As for Real, unable to raise any funds, they have failed to get even that far. No club have come forward with big money for Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez or Mariano Diaz. Real’s finances have long since been a source of interest. No cash evident in their most recent results for the six months up to Dec 31, and a total club wage bill for 2017-18, including basketball, which reaches €530 million when amortisation costs are also added. 

It began as a summer in which Zinedine Zidane expected to sign Paul Pogba and yet, of the new arrivals so far, the coach has been disposed to pick only Eden Hazard. The cost of Hazard’s £130 million transfer has been spread over the course of his contract, which was why Real could afford it.

Although funds have been raised with the sales of Mateo Kovacic, Marcos Llorente and Theo Hernandez those have already been invested in the signings of Hazard, Luka Jovic, Ferland Mendy and Eder Militao. There seems no prospect at all of Manchester United contemplating a cash-plus-player exchange deal for Pogba, whatever the player’s complaints. Attempts to create a market for James have failed and he has now returned to Madrid from his two-year loan at Bayern Munich, with the only option currently a loan to Napoli.

The promise of a summer of change at Real has ended with the signing of three players Zidane seems unwilling to pick and another year relying on an increasingly disgruntled old guard, including Luka Modric, who has no interest in being part of a Neymar trade to PSG. When it comes to the likes of Bale and James, Real’s wages are so high that they are out of the reach of all but a few clubs.

As for PSG, their challenge to the establishment two years ago has ended with their marquee signing the target of sweary banners from fans and his position untenable. As in 2017, Neymar may well get the transfer he wants, although at what cost it is not yet clear. For the club he is leaving, and for the club he joins – and for the club he does not – there are a different set of difficulties. 

No doubt Neymar would claim he is worth all the trouble and all the euros, although there are others who might disagree.