Neymar pursuit encapsulates Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry that rules over La Liga

The point of signing Neymar isn’t Neymar.

On the eve of the new La Liga season, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, the Spanish duopoly that has claimed 14 out of the last 15 championships, are locked in a desperate tussle for the Brazilian Paris Saint-Germain forward. Just two summers ago, PSG had poached the 27-year-old from Barca, where he’d spent four years following a transfer from Santos so rich in graft and fraud that it resulted in several prosecutions and resignations.

Thing is: neither team actually needs him.

It’s been a little while since there was a consensus about Neymar’s status as one of the world’s top players. Lately, he’s been slowed by injuries, suspensions, personal and attitude issues. And besides, getting Neymar from PSG, which hardly seems hostile to the notion of letting him go, will take a nine-figure transfer fee and probably the addition of a useful player or two on top. PSG has to recoup a good chunk of its world-record quarter-billion outlay, after all. Then there’s his salary, which will no doubt have to remain among the sport’s highest.

In most every way, signing Neymar doesn’t make a lot of sense. He still has star-power, and he surely remains capable of changing and winning games. But there are other players who can do that for you, who aren’t nearly as expensive or carry so much baggage. Besides, both Barca and Real have each invested heavily in a raft of new players this summer.

Barcelona forward Lionel Messi, left, goes head to head with Real defender Sergio Ramos after they argue during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona at the Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Saturday, March 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
Lionel Messi (left) and Sergio Ramos have led Barcelona and Real Madrid, respectively, in their rivalry for the past decade. (AP)

Barca laid out nearly 200 million euros for Ajax wunderkind playmaker Frenkie de Jong and Atletico Madrid’s star forward Antoine Griezmann. Between Griezmann, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Ousmane Dembele and record-signing Philippe Coutinho, Barca’s forward line is already very crowded, even if the latter leaves.

Real, meanwhile, dropped 300 million euros on defenders Eder Militao and Ferland Mendy, young forwards Luka Jovic and Rodrygo, and Chelsea’s little master Eden Hazard. Real now has about a dozen players who can play the same positions as Neymar does. And it still hasn’t managed to offload Gareth Bale or James Rodriguez, leaving even less room for yet another pricey forward.

So why go after Neymar? At that price, and that level of risk?

Because the thing that scares Barca and Real the most is that the other team will get him.

Neymar is one of the world’s most famous players. And for him to go to the arch-rival would be intolerable for either team. Barca still considers him one of its own, having propelled him to superstardom not so long ego. Real has pursued him for years, and there’s nothing the juggernauts from the capital would like better than to land a big name still so closely associated with Barca – just as it did with Luis Figo, launching the Galacticos era almost two decades ago.

It would be embarrassing for the other club to have him, and therefore they both must have him, even if they don’t need him and he might in fact throw their locker room and tactical balances off kilter – not to mention their bank balance and compliance with Financial Fair Play regulations. Barca and Real, as is their wont, have backed themselves into a corner where they have to buy Neymar. Because of ego. Because of optics. Because of everything but soccer.

Writ small, this is the never-ending tension at the center of La Liga, with Barca and Real, or Real and Barca, in a perpetual battle, year after year, signing after signing. A century of rivalry, political and tribal and regional, playing out to the detriment of planning or best practices.

Soccer Football - Ligue 1 - Angers v Paris St Germain - Stade Raymond Kopa, Angers, France - May 11, 2019  Paris St Germain's Neymar during the match     REUTERS/Stephane Mahe     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Real Madrid and Barcelona would do anything to get ahead of the other. Even make a nonsensical move for Neymar. (Reuters)

Barca has won eight La Liga titles in 11 seasons – including six doubles and three trebles – but has fallen well short in Europe for four straight years. Real won an unprecedented four Champions League titles in five years but the league just once in the last seven seasons. Each team wants what the other has.

If taking it means overpaying for Neymar and preventing him from showing up to a head-to-head clash in the other team’s jersey, so be it. Just in case that it does tip the balance of power.

Because all else is more or less equal. The perpetual crisis machines of Real and Barca are unusually quiet. Both teams are settled under their respective managers Zinedine Zidane and Ernesto Valverde. Their only real competitor, Atletico Madrid, has at best treaded water in the transfer market, landing Benfica prodigy Joao Felix but losing Griezmann, the essential Rodri and Lucas Hernandez. And there just isn’t any other club positioned to even threaten the big two.

So either Real or Barca will win La Liga yet again. But first, one of them will win Neymar. He’s a prize like any other to these clubs. And the thing about winning a prize is that you also prevent someone else from having it.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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