On a July evening in 2011 the football world’s focus was on the Vila Belmiro Stadium in Santos, which appears little changed from the days when a teenage Pelé lived in a dormitory under one of the stands. National-team coaches had arrived in Brazil before the World Cup qualifying draw, as a 19‑year‑old footballer called Neymar went toe-to-toe with Ronaldinho, the two-time world player of the year famous for his hip-swivelling trickery with the ball and toothy grin.
Sporting a blond mohawk hairstyle that teenagers all over Brazil were copying, Neymar was a blur of energy and movement. He danced past six players before slipping the ball into the net. One of the moves was so rapid that it required slow-motion replays to understand just how he had done it.
Neymar had become a commodity that the biggest clubs in the world wanted. His agent Wagner Ribeiro had moved Santos’s previous star, Robinho, to Real Madrid at age 21 for $30m. The next year Ribeiro took the 14-year-old Neymar to see the world’s richest club.
When Santos found out, it became worried that Neymar, who it didn’t yet have tied to professional terms, would sign for the Spanish club. Santos executives contacted football lawyer Marcos Motta and asked him to warn off Real Madrid and alert the football authorities. “We said: listen he’s a minor,” Motta said. “We called Fifa, we called the Brazilian football federation – we called everybody.” Real Madrid said Neymar was just visiting. Soon after, Neymar signed his first contract with Santos.
Santos could not match the wages top European teams were offering. So, when Neymar renewed his contract soon after, his agent managed to convince Santos to give Neymar 40% of his future transfer fee. It was not unheard of for South American footballers to be promised a cut of their next transfer fee. It was a way for clubs to retain talent a season or two longer. Fifa allowed club executives to award players up to 15% of their own fees (in 2015, in an internal directive, Fifa effectively capped the amount at €1 million) – what was more unusual was for a player to bank a cut of his transfer rights before he was even traded.
Santos sweetened the deal by telling Neymar’s father they had arranged an immediate buyer for the stake: supermarket chain owner Delcir Sonda.
Neymar’s father valued the stake in his son’s transfer rights at 5 million reais, about €1.8m. Sonda even came up with an extra $500,000 for Ribeiro. Neymar therefore became a millionaire before his 18th birthday.
The next day Neymar made his professional debut for Santos, coming on for the last 30 minutes. He wore a jersey several sizes too big that hung loosely off his child’s frame. Fans were chanting his name before he came on to the pitch. His earliest touches had the crowd on its feet. “The boy set fire to the game,” said one report.
Neymar went on to score 10 goals in his first league season and 17 in the next, and there were more wealthy investors lining up for a piece of his future transfer rights. A group of rich Santos fans bought 5% of those rights from the club. Their 3.5 million reais outlay meant Neymar’s perceived transfer value had soared more than fivefold in a year.
For Sonda and his investment advisers, the focus was on continuing to cultivate a relationship with Neymar’s father and trying, with his consent, to secure a big profit by promoting the idea of transferring Neymar. Trips to Europe became commonplace. Carlezzo says a Sonda executive told him of a meeting between Neymar Sr and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich in London.
In August 2010 Neymar made his debut for Brazil in a friendly against the USA. On the same day, Chelsea made an offer to sign him. “We had a meeting in the Hilton Hotel on Lexington Avenue” in New York, Motta said. Seated in the lobby were Neymar’s father, Ribeiro, Pini Zahavi, the Israeli dealmaker who knew Abramovich, a delegation from Chelsea and Luis Álvaro de Oliveira Ribeiro, the newly elected Santos president. Luis Álvaro ended the conversation quickly. He rejected the €35m being offered by the Premier League team. While he tried to appear calm, he was spooked by Chelsea’s push to sign Neymar immediately. He phoned officials back in Brazil to prepare a special career-plan programme designed to keep Neymar at the club for as long as possible. The plan included giving him English and Spanish lessons, specialist physical preparation and hiring him a wealth-management team.
Neymar led Santos to South America’s top club competition, the Copa Libertadores, for the first time since 1963 when Pelé was in the team. Neymar had scored throughout the run to a two-legged final against Uruguay’s Peñarol. He opened the scoring in the decisive second game, where a 2-1 victory clinched the championship, and was named man of the match.
His bargaining position stronger than ever, Neymar’s father persuaded the Santos president to sign what some saw as a naive agreement by the club allowing its star player to negotiate a future transfer with four years left on his contract and leave one year earlier than planned. The licence to negotiate with other teams, set out in a brief one-page letter, meant the father could go to the market early to drum up interest: he subsequently listened to offers from Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.
The end goal for the Neymar entourage was for Neymar to remain at Santos until the 2014 World Cup, when he and his sponsors – such as Nike, Red Bull and Panasonic – would capitalise on his profile before he moved to Europe. Real Madrid was well aware of the array of sponsors that Neymar was attracting. The Spanish club had a policy of taking 50% of endorsement deals players signed, and for years had pursued high-profile players such as David Beckham to increase its income.
José Ángel Sanchez, the club’s general director, had a meeting with Sonda lawyer Eduardo Carlezzo in Madrid in late 2011. At about the same time, Real Madrid made a €45 million bid for Neymar but it was rejected. Real tried another front. President Florentino Pérez called his Santos counterpart while the Brazilian was taking the two youngest of his six children on a trip to France. Pérez offered to fly Luis Álvaro to Madrid for lunch. “I imagine you want to have lunch with me to talk about Neymar’s rights?” Luis Álvaro said, recalling the conversation. “I said ‘don’t waste your time and fuel on the plane because we have no interest in selling.’ What did he do? He got on his jet, flew to Paris and had lunch with me.” At Guy Savoy, one of the most exclusive restaurants in Paris, Álvaro told Pérez what he had told Chelsea: no sale.
Still, Real Madrid felt they were making progress with Neymar’s father. Motta even drew up a contract between the club and Neymar. Abramovich had not given up wooing Neymar either. Michael Emenalo, Chelsea’s director of football, flew to Santos to try again. He met Neymar and proceeded to deliver one of the best sales pitches Motta had ever heard. “It was the very first time that I saw Neymar’s father listen to someone for more than 30 minutes without looking at his mobile,” Motta said.
Emenalo told the story of the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. How Chicago was not a big team, but together they evolved into international icons. Neymar could become Chelsea’s Michael Jordan, Emenalo said. José Mourinho was about to return to the club as manager and he wants to sign you, the Nigerian added. “You are going to lead Chelsea to the top.”
The more Neymar’s father met his son’s powerful suitors, the more money he realised he could extract from them. He decided that whichever team wanted to sign his son would have to pay an upfront fee of €10m. And then, upon completion of the deal, his son would be due a further €30m.
Under the plan, if either side reneged, it would be liable to pay a €40m penalty. Neymar’s father took out an insurance policy to protect his son against paying €40m in case he was seriously injured before his transfer to Europe.
According to his inner circle, there was only one team Neymar had his heart set on playing for: Barcelona. Neymar was 19 and had only recently moved out of the one-bedroom family home when he secretly agreed to join the Catalan club. On 15 November 2011 he signed a deal pledging to join Barcelona in 2014, and in return the club would pay him an initial €10m and a further €30m when he moved. Three days later Neymar’s parents formed a company called N&N Consultoria Esportiva e Empresarial to receive the first payment. Ten million euros were wired into its bank account in São Paulo.
The pact wasn’t made public and not even Santos knew about it. Eight months later Barcelona buried the terms of the deal on page 178 of their financial accounts, saying it had made a down payment on a future purchase without giving any more details or mentioning Neymar’s name. Neymar’s father continued to exert pressure over Santos by requesting they shorten his son’s contract by one year to 2013. Barcelona wanted to bring forward the deal, because Real Madrid were still pushing aggressively to sign Neymar.
Real were offering him a higher salary and offered to pay the €40m he would be liable to pay Barcelona. Barcelona reminded Neymar that he would have to share half of his pay from new sponsorship contracts with Real Madrid. Barcelona won the tussle and negotiated what appeared to be a very modest €17m transfer fee with Santos.
It was a personal victory for Sandro Rosell. But the taste of success would not last long for the president. At about the same time, Rosell was making an enemy among the fans. Jordi Cases, a pharmacist in his 40s, had a season seat in the cheap third tier at the Camp Nou.
Cases had become incensed by a decision by Rosell to sign a €30m-a-year sponsorship deal with Qatar. He felt that Rosell and his board were betraying the motto of being “més que un club” (Catalan for “more than a club”).
Presented by Rosell as a way for Barcelona to stay competitive in the Champions League, the Qatar sponsorship was approved by just 697 Barcelona members with voting rights at the previous annual general meeting. Cases said the sponsorship was such a significant development that all of the members should be consulted. He and some friends set up a pressure group to try to force a new ballot of all 170,000 members. The motion failed to get enough signatures. Barcelona is in theory controlled by its members: it’s they who elect the president and the board every year. But Cases was irked by the lack of say the members had once the election was over. After failing to make headway with the decision to put Qatar’s name on the team shirts, he turned his attention to page 178 of the club’s financial report that mentioned a €10m down payment on a €40m accord. Was this to Neymar? He wrote to Rosell and the board seeking more details. They ignored him.
In December Cases faxed a complaint to Spain’s National Court in Madrid asking it to investigate whether Rosell had misapplied funds to make the payment. He said he wasn’t accusing the president of a crime, he just wanted to know how the club was spending money on behalf of members. The board responded to Cases this time. Rosell called the complaint “reckless” and his general secretary, Tony Freixa, wrote a letter in Catalan on Christmas Eve to the family pharmacy saying the club could seek damages from him if confidential details about Neymar’s contract were made public. “As you can imagine, the size of the damages would be very high,” Freixa wrote.
Cases was unbowed. When, after the Christmas break, judge Pablo Ruz agreed to investigate, Cases realised he had triggered a scandal. Rosell immediately quit, although he continued to deny wrongdoing. He said he was stepping down to stop the fallout affecting the club.
After receiving permission from Neymar’s family to speak in public, Barcelona called a press conference. Interim president Josep Bartomeu said the transfer was costing the club €57.1m – the €17.1m Santos transfer fee plus Neymar’s €40m – although there were a series of bonus payments worth millions more to the player and his family. Neymar would receive €500,000 per year to be a so-called ambassador for Barcelona in Brazil and his father would receive €400,000 per year to scout three young Santos players. All the payments were on top of Neymar’s annual salary of more than €10m. “We can’t be any more transparent,” Bartomeu told reporters.
Public prosecutor Jose Perals accused Barcelona of financial engineering by drawing up as many as nine separate agreements to avoid the club paying €12m in tax. Barcelona should have withheld 25% of all payments to Neymar as income tax on non-residents, he said. Five days later, Barcelona paid €14m to the tax authorities to cover a possible shortfall plus interest.
At the same time they maintained their innocence, saying they had acted on the advice of tax experts. That wasn’t enough to get off the hook: the judge ruled there was enough evidence for Rosell to stand trial for “crimes against the public treasury” and for “dishonest” management. Cases had not intended to make such an impact and he withdrew his complaint from the Madrid court. It was too late. The court case was going ahead and Rosell faced up to seven years in prison if convicted [a judge at Spain’s National Court subsequently dropped charges against Rosell]. Neymar’s father said he had done nothing wrong. He wasn’t charged with any crime and said he had paid all taxes due in Brazil.
The Guardian Sport