Generally speaking, player release clauses are profoundly unexciting things. Required by law in Spanish football, and occasionally found elsewhere, they tend to be set ambitiously high, partly as a deterrent and partly as insurance. But often they're not completely stupid, and a player can rest assured that if somebody gets really excited about him, the opportunity to move on is there.
At the big Spanish clubs, though, buyouts are supposed to be comically unthinkable. "If you want Neymar," said Barcelona, last time he signed a new contract, "then you must pay €222 million!” Then they lifted their little finger to their mouth, and cackling ensued.
Except — as Dr. Evil found out — numbers that once seemed unreachable, almost impossible, can become attainable in no time at all. And now that Neymar is officially a PSG player, everybody else is laughing and Barça’s dastardly plan lies in tatters.
Barcelona have been here before, of course. Back in the dim and distant past of the year 2000, when football was only moderately ridiculous, newly elected Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez slapped down 10,000m pesetas (about £38m) and took Luis Figo off to the Bernabéu. Then, it was a record. Today, it wouldn't quite buy you Nemanja Matić. His release clause in Madrid, incidentally, was three times his previous.
Pérez had some circumstantial assistance. Figo had been stalling over a new contract, which certainly would have raised the price. And Pérez, a rank outsider at the time, had persuaded Figo and his agent to sign a deal promising that they would move to Madrid in the event of his unlikely victory in the Real Madrid presidential election. Then he went and won. Even now, as Sid Lowe notes in Fear and Loathing in La Liga, Figo hems and haws when asked if he actually wanted to go: "It didn't depend only on me."
But that doesn't detract from the awesome, terrible symbolism of the move. That number you thought impossible? Possible. That player you thought was yours? Ours. There is a sense of exposure, perhaps even humiliation. You thought the world was that way? You were wrong. It is this way. It is our way.
Since it seems to be the way of the world to treat the transfer market as its own competition — with winners and losers, pace-setters and stragglers — then these moves, the paradigm-shattering, record-breaking, impossible-made-possible ones, are the finishers. The fatalities. We've won, they say. And you didn't even know the rules.
Admittedly, Neymar's defection to Paris doesn't have quite the same resonance as Figo's move (or betrayal, or treachery). Barcelona and Real Madrid share one of the great sporting rivalries, laced with cultural and historical resonance. Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain? Similar shirt colours and silly Champions League ties, but that doesn't quite cut it. There'll be some whistling, should PSG return to the Camp Nou this season. There might even be nasty banners. But there probably won't be any pigs heads.
Beyond the bad blood, however, there's a similar sense that as with the dawn of the galácticos, the footballing world is being reconfigured. For Neymar and for his battery of advisers, his move amounts to the next step in his ascension to solo greatness; a conscious rejection of Lionel Messi's shadow and a bid, therefore, to supplant him.
For PSG, this is simultaneously a reassertion of domestic dominance — have some of that, Monaco — and another sign that they are looking beyond their borders to continental dominance, to a global profile, and to acceptance within the elite.
Then there's the question of money. Once again, the upper limit has been exploded, and so everything else gets dragged up with it. José Mourinho predicted last summer that Paul Pogba's record fee wouldn't stand for long, and he has been proved right. Arsène Wenger has recently predicted that swelling transfer fees might lead to more players playing out their full contracts then leaving on a free transfer, and that may come to pass as well. What on earth this means for UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules remains to be seen.
Though Real Madrid aren't directly involved this time, it's hard not to conclude that it's the merengues that are in the ascendancy in Spain. Their first team has just won two Champions Leagues in a row, and they've been refreshing their squad with young talent. Even if they don't succeed in picking up Gianluigi Donnarumma and Kylian Mbappé, they added Marco Asensio last summer and Theo Hernández and Dani Ceballos in the last few weeks.
And Barcelona? Here, perhaps, is where the parallels with the Figo transfer are at their most ominous for the Catalans. Figo's departure didn't just weaken Barcelona while strengthening their rivals. It also scrambled the heads of everybody at the club. Lowe quotes Joan Gaspart, Barcelona's also newly elected president:
“Figo's move destroyed us. One, the day you get elected, Figo tells you he's going to Madrid. Your best player, gone. Two, they give you loads of money. Loads of it. And instead of saying what I should have said: "gentlemen, this season whatever will be will be", I tried to rescue the situation, so I went on to the street to sign. That was a disaster: Everyone knows you’ve just lost Figo, they know you’ve got money, they know you’re obliged to sign.”
Patrick Kluivert was given a fat new contract that he didn't deserve; Marc Overmars, Geovanni, Gerard López, Javier Saviola, and plenty others all came in and underwhelmed to varying degrees. Managers came and went over the next few seasons, and league finishes that were mediocre by anybody else's standards were awful by Barcelona's. All the while, Figo picked up two league titles on either side of a Champions League title, and Real Madrid went galactic.
The burning and immediate question is: If Neymar was the plan to replace Messi, what’s the plan to replace Neymar? Philippe Coutinho's name has been a fixture in the rumour mill, but there's no guarantee Liverpool will sell and no guarantee he wants to move. Indeed, perhaps the only certainty there is that Coutinho, though he's often good and occasionally brilliant, isn't as good as Neymar.
Not many footballers are, of course, and Barcelona's other two, Messi and Luis Suárez, are both now 30. The process of replacing all three of them over the next few years is going to be a delicate and complicated one. On the plus side, they've now got a decent chunk of change with which to do it. But on the downside, their search begins with them looking more than a little second-rate and just a touch silly. Pinky to their lips, trousers round their ankles.