They sat at a podium in the Parc des Princes press room and did their best to suppress the grins that threatened to overtake their expressions. Nasser Al-Khelaifi and Neymar Jr. had been here before, never together, but in these situations, standing triumphant in their own accomplishments. They talked humbly but their disposition’s screamed deviously with delight. They together had shocked the world, orchestrated the impossible, and forever wrote their name in football’s book of history.
Al-Khelaifi never seemed destined for this fate. Born in Oman on the Persian Peninsula, he was a non-royal in a part of the world dominated by inherited wealth. His past hides behind a fog where only certain landmarks can be observed in the distance. He was a tennis player of modest skill whose career would generally be considered nondescript. He was a member of Qatar’s Davis Cup team and never climbed higher than 995th in the world tennis rankings. But in life it is not always what you know, but who you know.
“I’m six years older than him and we first met when the crown prince was eight,” Al-Khelaifi has said. “We met through tennis, we used to play together. I have a good relationship with him.” The him he’s referring to is the 8th Amir of Qatar, Tamin bin Hamad al-Thani. They had met as players in the Qatari tennis system and became life-long friends. Al-Thani founded Qatar Sports Investment and eventually Al-Khelaifi would become its president.
QSI as a concept grew from the desire of the Qatari government to diversify their economy which for the most part is propped up by the oil and natural gas industry. The idea was to invest Qatari money into foreign and domestic sporting endeavors to grow the sporting culture of Qatar and create new revenue streams. Part of this plan included creating a sports channel which became beIN Sports, which Al-Khelaifi is also chairman, acquiring the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which they did controversially in 2010, and buying a football team.
That football team was Paris Saint-Germain, a club formed in 1970, which had a checkered past. While the club was not a pauper it was not a prince either. A history filled with inconsistent domestic success, great players like Raí, George Weah, and Ronaldinho, racial and social tensions, and financial instability. A 41-year-old club with a lot of tread on its tires. It was in mid-2011 that QSI took controlling interest of the club and installed the ambitious Al-Khelaifi as its president. In those early days he laid out a vision for what he saw the club becoming: “Paris Saint-Germain has an enormous potential–they are the only big football club in a city of 12 million inhabitants! That’s unique in Europe. Our aim is to qualify for the UEFA Champions League every year as of 2012. Then, from 2015, we want to play a major role in the French championship.”
The man who has told Parisians to “Dream Bigger” has delivered on most of the promises he made in that quote. PSG have dominated French football, winning 4 of the last 5 Ligue 1 championships. The Parisians have also become a consistent fixture in the Champions League knockout stages. However, the one dream Al-Khelaifi has yet to deliver is a Champions League trophy. It is the hardest trophy to win in European football but when you spend the money QSI has, and made the declarations that Al-Khelaifi has, it becomes a difficult pill to swallow when the goal is not accomplished. With every passing year each UCL loss becomes more bitter, culminating in last years capitulation to FC Barcelona in the round of 16 second, in what was Al-Khelaifi’s lowest moment as PSG president.
Actually it is a lie to say that Nasser had not delivered on only one promise made. Their was a second quote from that same interview, which in a sense explains why the first promise has yet to be kept.
“They are great players, footballing legends, but more than anything we want the new Messi,” Al-Khelaifi said. “We don’t want to sign Lionel Messi, but we want to invest in the big stars of tomorrow from all over the world, including France.”
Nasser knew all along, from when he was the 995 ranked tennis player in the world, that a superior talent wins out in the end. From a footballing perspective and from a marketing and financial perspective it is the stars that make the football world turn round and round. Stars attract the advertising, they generate the revenue, they score the goals, they win the Champions League. So Nasser searched, first Javier Pastore, then Zlatan Ibrahimovic, then Edinson Cavani, then Angel Di Maria. All of these men are great talents, but not the talent. Not the new Messi.
As it turns out, Al-Khelaifi’s new Messi would be found in one of the most soccer-crazed nations on the planet. The nation that took the European game and made it the world game. The country that spawned Pelé, Ronaldo, Raí, Kaka, Ronaldinho, and countless other idols. It was in this nation in the small town of Mogi das Cruzes that Neymar was born of less than modest means. His father was a Brazilian club player who eventually needed to work three jobs to support his young son. Like many of the rags-to-riches stories, this one was built on the backs of hard working industrious parents. However, this story accelerated quicker than most would imagine.
It was at an early age that Neymar Jr. caught people’s attention. It was clear that the boy was different from the others that he was playing with. As he began to attract attention it was his father who took control and began to steer the career of his son. At 11, Neymar joined Santos’ youth team and it was in 2009 that he signed for their pro team, the same team Pelé took around the world in the 1960s.
It has to be mentioned that while Neymar wasn’t nearly the first Brazilian football icon, he was the first Brazilian football icon of the social media age. His highlights flooded YouTube, and he became the overnight sensation of the Brazilian people. For most of his young life Neymar has been a star, and a star of the highest order. Followed by the media and by fans, his every move scrutinized and dissected, which is why his transfer in 2014 became worldwide news. The bidders were those old world rivals, Real Madrid and Barcelona. Madrid could offer more money, Barca could offer the chance to play with Messi, the best footballer on the planet. The myth goes that Neymar Sr. wanted Madrid, but Neymar Jr. chose Barcelona. A triumphant moment for the Barca board and a bargain at only €57.1 million. However, it was not so much about how much money but where the money went.
It was a deal so complex and controversial that it forced then president of Barcelona Sandro Rosell to resign and led to the deal being scrutinized by the Spanish government. In brief, it was surmised that the fee paid by the Catalonians was split among a number of various holding companies, Santos FC, and Neymar’s dad. So what showed up as a €57.1 million transfer on paper ended up being somewhere closer to over €100 million all added up.
However controversial, the two main parties in the deal got what they wanted. Barcelona got trophies and a new star, Neymar got a chance to develop his skills under the wing of Messi and become an international superstar. A man for all occasion, he flourished in La Liga and the Champions League. He was part of the most feared trident in world football with Luis Suárez and Messi, a.k.a. MSN.
Neymar was becoming the icon he was predicted to be. His dribbling and flair mesmerized the Camp Nou. His infectious smile captured the imagination of all who gazed upon it. His Brazilian-ness and friendship with fellow seleção teammate Dani Alves was deliciously lovable. A boy became a man on one of Europe’s crown jewel clubs. Neymar was having the time of his life and his fans, along with the rest of the football world came along for the ride.
A long prosperous future as the heir to Messi seemed to be the logical progression for the Brazilian, a way to ensure financial growth and continued on-field success. However, Neymar aspired for more. The boy from Brazil desired to take hold of his own legacy and be the captain of his own fate. Playing with Messi was fun, but it would never get him to his ultimate goal. The goal that him and his father set in the streets where he first learned the beautiful game. To become the best football player in the world, or, the new Messi.
It is at this moment in the story where the two princes begin to cross paths. First in Champions League ties, then in secret but not so secret meetings. It is at this moment in the story where the hypothetical transfer of the century became a sudden reality.
Part III focuses on the the maneuvering and mechanics of the largest transfer in world football history.