The deal keeping Neymar at Santos - and away from Chelsea and Barcelona
Neymar does not return to Wembley an Olympic champion, but he does remain a Santos player. When the great Brazilian hope plays for his country against England he will be back at the scene of rare disappointment in his so-far stellar career – Brazil's defeat to Mexico in the final of London 2012 – yet the talk as he reaches European shores again will be of how long he can stay out of the clutches of Bayern Munich, or Chelsea, or Barcelona.
Another transfer window has passed and still he plys his trade in the Brasileirão. His employers at Santos have seen the competition coming and they know what they have is worth tightly guarding.
"He is a natural winner," said Luis Alvaro Ribeiro, the president of Santos, when he spoke to SportsPro last summer. "He has this winning spirit that's very important in an athlete. And talking about sport he might lead the best generation for Santos FC."
Comparisons with Pelé are inevitable, if flattering, but in the modern game the likelihood of a player's identity becoming so indivisible from a club as his did are slim. Brazilian club soccer is not quite as dependent on player sales as it once was. Certainly, the situation is vastly different from the 1990s, when it briefly – allegedly – became commonplace for clubs to lobby the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) to consider mediocre players for the national team in the hope of adding a zero or two to their transfer value.
But the sheer spending power of the European giants remains persuasive. In January one of Neymar's peers, the explosive 20-year-old midfielder Lucas Moura, completed a move to Qatari-owned French club Paris Saint-Germain in a deal reportedly worth a bracing €45.5 million. It is unsurprising that similar enquiries have been made about Neymar.
Some time ago, Ribeiro called his staff into his office with some news that would utterly alter the club’s relationship with its young star. "We have a huge proposal for Neymar to sell him to Chelsea in the first moment and then to Real Madrid and to Barcelona," he said.
Pelé, famously, was declared a national treasure by the Brazilian government early in his career to head off the likes of Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United at the pass. It took a diplomatic intervention from Henry Kissinger before Pelé could join New York Cosmos in 1975, and that was after he had been in semi-retirement from meaningful professional soccer for over two years.
"He is a natural winner. He has this winning spirit that's very important in an athlete."
Santos cannot call on such authority to protect their golden child from foreign interest but Ribeiro is a man possessed of his own philosophy: "We must sell the show and not the players." A transfer fee for Neymar, went the discussion, would fund the signings of "two or three new players" and help to pay down debt, but it would not be enough to "change the club’s history" and there was a greater opportunity in store.
"So we said no," remembered Ribeiro. "Neymar can change our history, can help us to make our history better, so let's keep Neymar. It's as simple as that."
Neymar has since agreed a long-term contract and though he is widely expected to try his luck in Europe some time after the 2014 World Cup, his continuing presence in Brazil is a real boon both on and off the field. Not for nothing did SportsPro name him the world's most marketable athlete last summer. "It is clear that the value of our shirt with Neymar is different to that without it," Ribeiro told the Brazilian media in November 2011 as Santos renewed a deal with shirt sponsor Banco BMG, reportedly upping the fee from US$10.3 million to US$13.8 million a year in the process.
From the Libertadores to London 2012 the forward seems to carry an electricity with him wherever he goes – which may explain some of his hairstyles – and attendances at the Estádio Vila Belmiro have risen 8.5 per cent since his arrival in the Santos first team. The management at the club believe that with his flair and his taste for popular culture and social media Neymar gives them a line into a youthful demographic, and he is described in glowing terms as a spokesperson.
"You're going to earn these figures here and we're going to put this money in your hand, in your pocket, 70 per cent is going to come from sponsors."
"He is a genius at communication," said Ribeiro, "phenomenal at communication. It's quite easy to work with him and to build strategies with him. He's very smart, he's a very fast learner, he’s great. So with this brand issue, Neymar is very important for us because, how can I say this, he brings together all that our brand means. Neymar is perfect for that, for our strategy."
The club has worked hard to exploit Neymar's media profile in Brazil, not only to its own advantage but also to his. Their activities have led to an arrangement which, if not quite unique in Brazil, is arguably uniquely successful.
"We have five sponsors on our jersey," explained Ribeiro, "it's very different when you compare it to England, for example, or European teams. When we arrived at the club we had in sponsorship something around US$3 million per year. This year we have something around US$13 million in 2012. So it increased a lot. TV rights increased something over 100 per cent. We negotiated our TV rights separately, not together with the other clubs. We talked with the broadcasting company by ourselves so the negotiation is very individual.
"We have Neymar. Only Neymar has 11 sponsors – individual sponsors. It's something that we built for him. It’s a career brand that we built for him in 2010 when he had the proposal from Chelsea and we said, 'No, you're going to stay here.' We approved the figures with him. 'You're going to earn these figures here and we're going to put this money in your hand, in your pocket, 70 per cent is going to come from sponsors.'"
It is a concept that the club believes makes Neymar "perhaps the cheapest player for Santos”" and an internal marketing team works directly with his representatives on a portfolio which includes blue-chip brands like Panasonic, Unilever and Volskwagen. Similar models are already being prepared for the benefit of 19-year-old midfielder Felipe Anderson and even 16-year-old Victor Andrade, who made the step up to the first team to some acclaim while star players were in London for the Olympics. "We were pioneers here in Brazil," said Ribeiro.
"Neymar can change our history, can help us to make our history better, so let's keep Neymar. It's as simple as that."
As its finances have come under control the club has sought to establish a more “European model” for its commercial affairs – maximising revenues from sponsorship and merchandising, TV rights fees and ticket sales – but in order to stay competitive in the short term it cannot relinquish control of the transfer fee safety valve just yet.
"We have to sell players," admitted Ribeiro. "So the most important thing is to keep the most important players and sell one or two players for proposals that we can’t refuse when they come. And that’s what has happened in the last few years, there were proposals for two or three players that we couldn’t say no to. But we say no when they try to sign Neymar."
As Ribeiro is fond of saying, "Sometimes you have to sell the satellites to maintain the planet."
A full interview with Santos FC president Luis Alvaro Ribeiro appeared in the October 2012 edition of SportsPro. Details of how to request a free trial copy can be found here. Click here to subscribe.
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