On a hot summer’s day, a rather dapper looking gentleman in a dicky bow and a panama hat, handkerchief neatly folded into his breast pocket, dashed across the country carrying €222m in a briefcase.
Chased by cameras, clock ticking, Benny Hill theme going around more than one mind while the script for some comedy gangster flick briefly formed in others, Juan de Dios Crespo arrived in Madrid first. He rolled up late morning only to find that giving away loads of money wasn’t quite as easy as he had hoped. Luckily, as it turned out it wasn’t quite so difficult as he feared either.
The cheque that he had with him had of course been provided by Paris Saint-Germain, which is to say by Qatar. It was his job to pay the buy-out clause that would unilaterally release Neymar from Barcelona and allow the Brazilian to head to “a new challenge” in France instead. At 11.15, De Dios Crespo – a lawyer who once defended Leo Messi, succeeding in getting a four-match international ban reduced – walked into the league’s HQ carrying the money; at 11.30 he walked out again still carrying it. As the president Javier Tebas had promised, the LFP refused to accept payment. So off he went again.
It was time for Plan B, which worked, meaning that De Dios Crespo didn’t need to activate plan C – depositing the cash with a public notary. A few hours later, he appeared on Carrer d’Aristides Maillol, 600km away in Barcelona, strolling through the grey metal gates, another man wheeling a massive metal suitcase alongside, and into the offices by Camp Nou. There, the director general Oscar Grau was waiting. It was half past six on 3 August and Neymar, whom Gerard Piqué had announced was staying, was going. They would miss him, even if some rushed to say they wouldn’t.
There had been no real legal grounds to refuse the cheque in Madrid, but the league president Tebas talked about financial fair play and said he could not accept money that had come from he-didn’t-know-where. Besides, this Spanish patriot, viscerally opposed to Catalan independence and, he admits, a Madrid fan had vowed to fight Barcelona’s corner on their behalf, an unlikely temporary hero for the Catalan club. Only Barcelona themselves, on the other hand, didn’t. The cheque went uncashed, but it was received. “They were gentlemen,” De Dios Crespo said as he strolled out again. “This odyssey is over.”
For him, maybe; for Barcelona, it had only just begun. And Tebas may have feared the same. This was not just about protecting them; it was about protecting his league. Even if he did insist, “frankly, I’d be far more concerned if Messi or Ronaldo left”, PSG represent a major challenge to La Liga, which kicks off for another season tonight with little fanfare as Leganés play Alavés at Butarque. It will begin with a minute’s silence everywhere, black armbands, flags at half mast and a horrible, lingering sense that none of it even matters after Thursday’s terror attack on the Ramblas. But carrying on is, they say, part of coping.
Neymar’s move felt like a game-changer and La Liga are already aware that competing with the Premier League, in particular, is difficult, especially beyond Madrid and Barcelona. At least when it comes to all that other stuff – the stuff that’s not the actual football.
The LFP didn’t want another competitor out there, another place their footballers could flee to, a drain on their talent beyond the big two. Yet while the summer has already brought departures and more will surely follow, while Neymar leaves a huge hole, this time La Liga has largely resisted. Vicente Iborra left the Sánchez Pizjuán in tears, Roque Mesa will be missed, and Kevin-Prince Boateng announced he was leaving on Wednesday. James Rodríguez and Álvaro Morata have gone too. But Real Madrid felt that they could allow those two to depart – they’re probably right – and others have remained.
Most notable among those they thought they might lose but have kept is Antoine Griezmann, although for Atlético keeping Saúl Ñíguez and Koke is significant too. The Ronaldo-wants-away story soon went away. So they’re still here. So is Messi. And Luis Suárez. And Isco. And Marco Asensio – the man who, at 21, makes Zinedine Zidane smile and scored a belting goal on Wednesday night. “When he does that I can only admire it,” Zidane said. “Anyone who likes football can only admire him.”
Others have returned or soon will – Jesús Navas has joined Sevilla, Lucas Pérez wants to head home to Deportivo and Diego Costa is of course after a reunion with Atlético. There, he would be joined by Vitolo whose contract extension at Sevilla was announced one night and his signing for Atlético was announced the very next day. A six-month loan at Las Palmas, a bridgehead to the capital, is designed to keep him fit and on form until they have served their transfer ban. It also means he, Sevilla’s new Satan, will have to visit the Sánchez Pizjuán twice.
By then, Atlético will be playing at a stadium called Wanda, set for its first game in week four. On the other side of the city, the Calderon will come down piece by piece. That’s the most significant change, although there have been others – not least the departure of the president of the Spanish Federation, Ángel María Villar, who was arrested and taken to jail at Soto del Real on corruption charges. He has been president for almost 30 years; that his time ended like this didn’t really surprise anyone.
So there’s a new stadium, a new president at the RFEF, and new players in squads all across Spain, including 10 at newly-promoted Getafe and 10 at Alavés, among them Zidane – Zinedine’s son Enzo. Michel’s son Adrián, meanwhile, is among the eleven new men playing under him at Malaga. The fear is that those who left may be even more significant, Pablo Fornals, Ignacio Camacho and Everton signing Sandro among them. There has been no galáctico at Real Madrid, with the president Florentino Pérez claiming that it’s best “not to touch”. That said, Pérez also asked to be given time and warned he’s at his best on 31 August.
There are also new coaches – José Ángel Ziganda at Athletic, Quique Setién at Betis, Juan Carlos Unzué at Celta, Manuel Márquez at Las Palmas, Eduardo Berizzo at Sevilla, Marcelino at Valencia, plus the three promoted managers, all given the opportunity to continue – a new rivalry, with Leganés and Getafe finally meeting in the top flight after years battling it out in the second and third tiers, and even a new team. Girona, here for the first time in their 47-year history, are the 62nd team to play in primera , another province represented.
Manchester City’s (unofficial) Spanish branch, Girona, beat Pep Guardiola’s team in their final warm up game but their aim, will of course be just to survive. In that, they won’t be alone: some will say that security is all they seek; others will actually mean it, Levante, Getafe and Leganés certainly among them.
At the other end, Sevilla begin the post-Monchi era under his former right-hand man. Éver Banega and Nolito have joined Navas at the Pizjuán and there is optimism. If you can still count Valencia as a team from the “other end” they have an impressive manager but also one that doesn’t (yet?) have the players that he wants. And Espanyol winger Pablo Piatti says they can‚ “do great things”, even as the sporting director admits: “We’d love to sign Ronaldo,” but we can’t.”
Villarreal have sold Roberto Soldado but brought in Carlos Bacca on loan. Celta’s evolution under Unzué, Luis Enrique’s former No2, will be interesting and he has Iago Aspas still around. Real Sociedad, quietly impressive last season, have stability and Adnan Januzaj. And then there’s Atlético: a little older, but with reinforcements ready for the winter and still Atlético – if they really can be in their new home, 20km away, far from their emotional heartland.
As for Barcelona and Madrid, the scales may have been inclined towards the capital already, but Neymar’s departure tipped them the rest of the way. It is not just his departure and what that does to them; it is how and why it happened, the way it symbolised a sense of decline that already latent; a failure to find solutions and protect an identity, too build a future. Xavi’s days ended, Andrés Iniesta’s are ending. Neymar’s departure expressed Barcelona’s debilitation and lack of control; it hinted at his lack of faith. Selfish perhaps, but symptomatic too.
Apparently, players knew he was going earlier in the summer, but the board did not know. “I’m 200% sure he’s staying,” Jordi Mestre had said, but he wasn’t.
So, the cheque arrived instead, carried by a lawyer in a dickie bow. They haven’t spent it yet. Poor old Paulinho, about the only person who hasn’t done anything wrong yet, but who for many represents all that is wrong with Barcelona – a 29-year-old from the Chinese league with a profile that is not supposed to be theirs – was coming anyway. He hasn’t exactly been made to feel welcome. Nélson Semedo was coming too; but he probably won’t be Dani Alves. He may not even be Sergi Roberto, some fear.
Paulinho’s arrival was certainly not this board’s worst act but it was, for some, the last straw – prompting widespread and not entirely misplaced calls for Josep Maria Bartomeu to resign. Crisis looms, if it is not already there. The man who had proceeded him, Sandro Rosell, is in jail. His end as president had ultimately come with signing Neymar; could Bartomeu’s come with selling him? It is more likely if the €222m is not used well and Ousmane Dembélé and Philippe Coutinho still haven’t arrived. Barcelona’s pursuit of them could go with the Benny Hill theme too, seemingly hapless and bumbling.
“We’re close to signing them but until it’s done I can’t say anything,” admitted Pep Segura, saying something. Rather more than he should have done, in fact. “We need signings,” said Sergio Busquets, who also criticised Segura for singling out Piqué after his mistake in the Supercopa first leg, divisions surfacing again. It is not entirely by chance that Barcelona’s players supported Neymar’s decision to go. And every time a board member speaks, it seems to make it worse.
“It seems like the team and club are going in different directions: we have to pull in the same direction,” Piqué said, swiftly adding: “There’s no split, there’s no split, no.”
Ernesto Valverde is a manager of admirable calm and as the pressure builds that will be hugely important. But he admitted the difficulties of planning for a season when you don’t know what players you have. How do you complete a jigsaw without all the pieces, and will the new ones even fit? “We have to find the mechanisms but the circumstances have changed. Things happened in preseason,” he said.
Yes, Neymar went. Now Suárez is out for a month with a knee injury. It never rains, but it pours. The MSN reduced to the M. Oh, and here’s a thought: Mestre says it is “agreed” but Messi hasn’t actually signed that contract extension yet. Even though Bartomeu had claimed he had. On Wednesday he stood alone, his team vanished from around him. A penny (or 22,200,000,000 of them?) for his thoughts. A penny for Valverde’s. This was not how he imagined it.
Right now, Barcelona look like a team – a club – without inspiration or identity. Madrid, league and European Cup double winners for the first time in 59 years, are the opposite; they have found one, and it feels irresistible. They have won three of the last four Champions League yet this does not feel like the culmination of an era for them; it feels like the beginning. Everything is falling into place; the strength in depth is overwhelming, the sense of an idea forming, but with variety too. And a future: Theo Hernández is 19, Marco Asensio 21, Mateo Kovacic 23, Raphaël Varane 24, Dani Carvajal, Isco and Casemiro, all 25. Where Barcelona have failed in the market, Madrid have succeeded: Spain’s youngest, most talented players are heading to the Bernabéu, not the Camp Nou. Theo and Dani Ceballos underline that.
The superstar signings have given way to the right ones. The management has been impressive; no one anywhere has a squad like this. Or a team, whichever team Zidane puts out. It may not last forever and it took a lot of last season to fall into place but they are not just defeating teams now, they are staring to dominate them.
On Wednesday night, they controlled the midfield with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos – players who would once have fit a mould that Barcelona no longer seem to have and who they could have signed – plus Kovacic. That was Barcelona’s territory once. None cost more than €35m. Asensio cost €4.5m, after Barcelona had failed to follow through on an agreement set up with Mallorca.
When his shot flew through the air and into the net after four minutes, Zidane just smiled; he didn’t go wild. He admitted that his reaction said something about his confidence in this team and the 21-year old named after Marco van Basten, a star in waiting. The performance was “expected” he said. Everything seems so natural to him, but this is not normal. He has won as many titles as he has lost games: seven in a year and a half.
Madrid took Barcelona to bits. For the first time in almost a decade a Barcelona coach lost two clásicos in a row; for the first time in over six years, they hadn’t scored in a clásico; and they did not have more than 50% of the ball “for the first time in 40 clásicos. “We’re not worse than anyone,” Valverde had said before the game but they were. It finished 5-1 on aggregate, a single goal in 180 minutes – and that was a penalty.
League champions for only the second time in eight years, there’s a simple reason why most think that will soon be a second time in two: it’s not that Madrid were the better team on Wednesday night, it’s that Wednesday reinforced the sense that they just are the better team. Another season begins tonight, two weeks after a man in a bow tie and a panama hat made his way across Spain and two days after Piqué admitted: “In the nine years that I have been here, it is the first time that I feel inferior to Madrid.”
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