The Never-ending Neymar Transfer Scandal

Everything you need to know about Barcelona's deal and the men who made it possible

By Dermot Corrigan

October 20, 2016

Bleacher Report

Barcelona confirmed this week Neymar will sign a new five-year deal worth a reported €16 million a year. His buyout clause will start at €200 million and rise to €250 million. This is a marquee player seen as integral to their future, but did Barcelona cheat the system—and their rivals—to sign him in the first place?

On Friday, Sept. 23, Spain’s national court in Madrid reopened the case of Neymar’s 2013 transfer. Neymar, his father Neymar Sr., FC Barcelona and their former president Sandro Rosell stand accused of fraud and could face trial in 2017.

This is the full story of how Barcelona’s sensational deal to secure the most coveted young player on the planet crossed the line into scandal. It’s a tale of alleged tax evasion, corruption and tactics as elusive as Neymar is to those who try to tackle him.

CHAPTER I: The Great Denial

"Every year we must face things which aim to destabilise us."

Sandro Rosell, December 2013

Neymar da Silva Santos Jr. was unveiled to considerable fanfare at Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium on June 3, 2013.

Barca’s then-vice-president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, said the club would pay €57.1 million for the Brazilian star. This amount would be distributed between four parties: “Santos, DIS, Teisa and another sporting consultancy.” In addition, there would be a commitment for Barca to play two friendlies against Santos, and Barca would have an option on certain Brazilian youngsters in Santos’ ranks.

Barca’s directors were ecstatic. Most of Europe’s biggest and richest clubs had wanted the 21-year-old—especially Real Madrid. Especially them. But Barca got him. What we didn’t know was how they did it.

Confusion crept in, and storm clouds soon gathered. With the deal announced at a cost of €57.1 million to Barca, Neymar’s former club Santos, along with third-party investors who owned a share in his playing rights, cried foul—saying they were not getting their fair share.

Barcelona “socio,” or club member, Jordi Cases suspected foul play. An outspoken critic of Rosell’s regime, Cases made an internal request for information but was turned down. In December 2013, the 42-year-old pharmacist brought an official legal complaint to Spain’s Audiencia Nacional court. He alleged “misappropriation of funds” in the Neymar transfer.

Rosell devoted his Christmas address to the issue. He reiterated the €57.1 million figure. And he alleged a conspiracy—tying questioning of the Neymar transfer with other alleged “external” attacks on the club: FIFA’s youth transfer investigation, a European Commission inquiry into illegal state aid, and Lionel Messi’s tax affairs.

“This is a collection of things which have all happened at once,” Rosell said. “I’d like to think this is just a coincidence; I want to believe there is no organised persecution. But every year we must face things which aim to destabilise us.”

Neymar is unveiled as a Barcelona signing on June 3, 2013, at Camp Nou.

CHAPTER II: Rosell Falls on His Sword

“We’re very proud of the Neymar contract, but it seems like we’re being asked to apologise for it.”

Raul Sanllehi, January 2014

On Monday, Jan. 20, 2014, Rosell was presenting a new €600 million redevelopment of Camp Nou. Nobody wanted to talk about that, though. That morning, El Mundo alleged Neymar had cost €95 million, almost twice Barca’s public figure, making him the world’s most expensive player.

“Neymar has cost €57.1 million, full stop,” Rosell said. “I will say it again for the umpteenth time, and full stop. With the greatest respect, I ask the judge to call me to testify. And I will tell him everything has been impeccable. Barca is a thousand per cent transparent in everything.”

Two days later, Judge Ruz launched an official investigation into the transfer.

The following morning came speculation the Barca president was considering quitting. Friendly reporters were briefed about the “strong pressures, insults and threats” the 49-year-old and his family were facing. An extraordinary board meeting took place at 6 p.m. at Camp Nou. Afterward, Rosell confirmed the rumours of his resignation were true.

“In recent days, an unfair and reckless accusation of misappropriation has resulted in a lawsuit against me in the Audiencia Nacional,” Rosell said. “From the beginning I have said that the signing of Neymar Junior has been correct and his signing has caused despair and envy in some of our adversaries.

“I don’t want unfair attacks to negatively affect [the] management or the image of the club. This is why I think my time here has come to an end. … I have presented my irrevocable resignation of the presidency of FC Barcelona.”

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Rosell announces his resignation on January 23, 2014.

Bartomeu assumed the presidency. Less than 24 hours later, he joined Raul Sanllehi—Barca’s director of football management—in the Camp Nou pressroom to show a basic PowerPoint presentation

"With the greatest respect, I ask the judge to call me to testify. And I will tell him everything has been impeccable. Barca is a thousand per cent transparent in everything."

Sandro Rosell

Sanllehi detailed Neymar’s “transfer fee” as €17 million. It was explained that companies named N&N Consultoria Esportiva and Empresarial Limited, recipients of €40 million, were owned by Neymar’s parents, Neymar da Silva Santos Sr. and Nadine Goncalves.

After accounting for various agents’ fees and commissions paid to N&N, the total cost was now €86.2 million—less than El Mundo had reported but considerably more than the “€57.1 million, full stop” Rosell had emphatically declared days before.

“We have not lied,” Bartomeu said. “Football games are won on the pitch, not behind closed doors in offices. We lost [Alfredo] Di Stefano in an office, but we’ve not lost Neymar.”

“We’re very proud of the Neymar contract, but it seems like we’re being asked to apologise for it,” Sanllehi added. “It was a very tough negotiation. Transparency is very important—but transparency handled properly. Because if you open the door too wide, it becomes indiscreet, and that can work against the interests of the club.”

Neymar is greeted by thousands of Barcelona fans on his unveiling at Camp Nou in 2013.

CHAPTER III: A Taxing Matter

“We pay all our taxes on time—in this sense, Barcelona is an example.”

Josep Bartomeu, February 2014

On Feb. 19, 2014, a writ presented to the court—and seen by El Pais—read as follows: “There is a whole series of contracts that show signs of simulation, as well as financial engineering operations.”

Lead prosecutor Jose Perals accused Barca of deliberately evading €9.1 million in taxes. The following day, Judge Ruz named FC Barcelona itself as an official suspect and ordered the handover of a series of contracts and documents.

Speaking on Spanish TV sports show Estudio Estadio, Bartomeu seemed relaxed.

“Barca are very comfortable about the contract we made with Neymar and with Santos,” he said. “We pay all our taxes on time—in this sense, Barcelona is an example. When we have to, we will explain the signing of Neymar and demonstrate that it is all completely legal.”

Four days later, however, Barca made a “complementary tax declaration” of €13,550,830.56. This was to cover taxes owed on the various monies paid in the Neymar transfer.

“We do not owe any taxes,” Bartomeu told a news conference. “We are in the right. We are convinced that the money we paid to the tax agency, in order to avoid complicating the issue further, will be returned to the club.”

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Bartomeu presents Barcelona's Neymar figures to gathered media in January 2014. 

Who to believe? Because well-sourced outlets including La Vanguardia and El Pais reported Barca were working with the tax authorities to avoid a fine that El Mundo said could be as high as €63 million. 

On Feb. 13, 2015, Judge Ruz ruled Rosell and Bartomeu should face trial for “crimes against the public tax agency” and for “dishonest” management.

Peral's office told Bloomberg it wanted Barcelona to pay €22 million in fines. It was also seeking more than seven years of jail time and upwards of €25 million in fines from Rosell, as well as a €3.8 million fine and two years, three months in jail for Bartomeu. The pair “undoubtedly” took part in “criminal acts,” the prosecutors’ office said.

The estimated cost of Neymar’s transfer, including taxes, was now €94.9 million.

Meanwhile, on the pitch, everything was going gangbusters. Neymar finished the season with 39 goals in all competitions and winners' medals in La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League. Rosell made a rare public appearance to watch Barcelona’s Champions League final win over Juventus in Berlin.

On July 18, 2015, Bartomeu ran to extend his presidency despite facing possible jail time for allegedly defrauding Spanish taxpayers. There were also various other issues ongoing—including the FIFA transfer ban imposed in December 2014, after Barcelona broke youth transfer regulations and the club’s unpopular relationship with Qatar. Many outside observers saw 2003-10 president Joan Laporta, still close to Blaugrana legends Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola, as favourite.

But club members valued recent on-pitch success over off-field problems. Or they were on their summer holidays. Of around 110,000 members eligible to vote, only just over 30 per cent turned out to vote. The incumbent easily saw off Laporta’s challenge, winning 54.6 per cent of the tally (25,823 votes) to his nearest opponent’s 33 per cent (15,615).

Neymar celebrates scoring for Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup final first leg against Atletico Madrid in August 2013.

CHAPTER IV: The Case Against Neymar Sr.

“He could have left for free in 2014, and I would have made €120 million.”

Neymar Sr., January 2014

It was January 2014 when Neymar’s father finally broke his silence.

“I’m coming here to clear up all the situation of the contract,” Neymar Sr. told ESPN Brasil. “Neymar was only going to leave Santos to go to Barcelona. My work was to strengthen the agreement. These €40 million were received because he left Santos before [his contract ended].

“We had better offers. I do not want this to generate confusion. He could have left for free in 2014, and I would have made €120 million, because there were offers from other clubs of this value. I repeat that I owe nothing to the taxman, not in Brazil nor in Spain—absolutely nothing.”

Neymar Sr. also had a message for his son’s previous club, whose president Odilio Rodrigues was loudly complaining they had been conned out of millions.

“We all want to take advantage of the sale of Neymar,” he said. “Some wanted to row in one direction, others in another. ... What are Santos complaining about? They took in a lot of money and did not pay anything for him.”

Santos were not the only Brazilian entity feeling aggrieved. Third parties that had previously invested in the future of Neymar were also crying foul. DIS Esporte was getting €6.8 million for its 40 per cent stake but said it was owed at least €16 million more.

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Neymar and his father pictured together this year at the Neymar Jr. Institute Project in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

DIS bought its share of Neymar in 2009, three years after the then-14-year-old had spent a few weeks on trial at Real Madrid in 2006. In 2011, Madrid thought they had agreed to a deal worth €45 million, but Neymar stayed in Brazil and signed a new contract with Santos instead. It included a €60 million release clause and ran up to World Cup 2014.

In rapid time, Neymar evolved from a YouTube sensation into the world’s next big superstar. Chelsea, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich were among the top European clubs said to be readying huge bids.

Neymar’s “investors” were set fair for a windfall, but neither they nor Santos were aware Rosell and Neymar Sr. had already signed a contract.

In November 2011, Barca made their first €10 million “down payment”—included in the club’s 2011/12 official club accounts as money paid for an “intangible fixed asset”—to the family, with a move to the Camp Nou set up once Neymar’s Santos contract ended.

CHAPTER V: Meanwhile, Back Home in Brazil

"Neymar’s conduct, along with the others accused, caused millions in losses to the public coffers.”

Prosecution statement, March 2014

Neymar Sr.’s comments to ESPN Brasil left a lot unsaid. If his son was always going to join Barcelona, why was the transfer constructed with so many extra side deals that were kept secret at first?

By February 2014, Santos were having serious reservations about the arrangement and wanted a judge to grant them access to all relevant paperwork. Delcir Sonda, owner of DIS, said: “I’m outraged because of all the s--t which has fallen on my company. Neymar’s father is a lowlife. He used to live in poverty and doesn’t recognise the people who have helped his son.”

Things were about to get worse for Neymar and Neymar Sr.

"Neymar’s father is a lowlife. He used to live in poverty and doesn’t recognise the people who have helped his son."

Delcir Sonda

On March 6, 2014, Brazilian tax authorities started an investigation. As per a Bloomberg report citing Epoca Magazine, “auditors requested an explanation for “atypical” cash flow of 115 million reals ($36.4 million) between 2011 and 2014 to a company set up by his (Neymar’s) parents.”

“Neymar’s conduct, along with the others accused, caused millions in losses to the public coffers,” the prosecution’s statement read.

A federal judge ruled that assets—including a yacht, a jet, several fast cars and luxury properties—be frozen while the case was heard. On March 18, 2016, a Brazilian administrative court found Neymar guilty of tax fraud and ruled he must pay 188.8 million Brazilian reals, or around €45 million, in penalty, interest and back taxes. This huge sum was almost equal in magnitude to the full payments made to N&N as part of the 2013 transfer.

In November 2015, Neymar Sr. spoke to Radio Barcelona show Que T’hi Jugues! He said talks with Barca over extending Neymar’s deal—set to end in June 2018—had begun but that nothing would be signed until he had clarity over the tax situation.

“We’re talking about renewing, but there are things outstanding still to resolve which have us a bit worried,” he said. “There cannot be these tax concerns. We must know if Spain accepts our situation. It is hard for us because we are receiving many attacks, from Brazil and from Spain, in tax matters.”

Neymar's goal sealed Champions League glory for Barcelona in the 2015 final against Juventus.

CHAPTER VI: Whiter Than White

“We were not guilty of anything. The club was.”

Josep Bartomeu, June 2016

Just before 10 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 5, Bartomeu and Rosell arrived at the Audiencia Nacional courthouse on Madrid’s Calle de Genova.

Both men appeared calm. At 11:20 a.m., Bartomeu and Rosell left the courthouse without speaking to the press. Barca’s director of communication Josep Vives said: “We’re relaxed and trust in the justice system. All has been done well.”

A week before, Neymar himself was in front of Judge Jose De La Mata for more than an hour-and-a-half. His parents, former Santos presidents Rodrigues and Oliveira, former Barcelona sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta and Sanllehi were among the other witnesses called around this time.

Few details emerged about the testimony given, but on March 27, 2015, a video emerged showing Bartomeu telling De La Mata that Neymar joined in summer 2013 because then-Barca coach Tito Vilanova was not prepared to wait. Bringing the transfer forward 12 months cost the club an additional €40 million.

Vilanova died of cancer in April 2014, so his side of the story will not be told. Bartomeu said any suggestion he was blaming his departed ex-colleague for all that had gone wrong, however, was “ill intentioned.”

On June 7, 2016, came reports that prosecutor Perals wanted Judge De La Mata to force Neymar, his father, Rosell and then-Santos chief Rodrigues to face criminal corruption charges. A net appeared to be closing around those involved with the transfer.

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Rosell (left) and Bartomeu arrive at court in February this year.

Just four days later, after years of claiming the Neymar transfer had been whiter than white, Barca accepted publicly their responsibility. The club and the tax authority agreed the €40 million paid to N&N had been an advance salary, not a transfer fee, which meant the club owed €9.3 million in income taxes. In addition, Barcelona accepted a €5.5 million fine.

Most strikingly, the pact saw the charges against Rosell and Bartomeu dropped, while Barca assumed formal guilt for what had taken place. The club, an institution, had taken the fall. But nobody was going to jail, and nobody was even getting a slap on the wrist. Barca had taken the smoothest path, with the fewest individual repercussions, to allow them to move forward.

There would be no club-wide vote on the pact. The board voted 14-2 in favour with two abstentions.

“We admit tax mistakes,” Bartomeu said. “But in operations of this type, there are many people involved, so the responsibility is widely shared. If we were to repeat the signing, we would choose different advisors. [But] neither Rosell nor I did anything wrong.

“We were not guilty of anything. The club was. The tax authority, and the state prosecutor, have exonerated us, as we were not guilty. We just signed a player. We have accepted the fine and the pact to end the proceedings. We have taken the best decision for Barca.”

CHAPTER VII: More Than a Transfer

"Futbol Club Barcelona, Neymar and his father clearly did not follow the legal obligations imposed by FIFA’s transfer statutes."

Court judgment, July 2016

In July, with the tax case seemingly behind them, Barcelona announced Neymar’s contract would be extended until 2021, which has now been confirmed. Speculation of their superstar leaving for a club like Manchester United—or, heaven forbid, Real Madrid—was put to bed. Their fans rejoiced.

On July 12, the agreement between Barca’s board and the tax authorities was put on public display at the Camp Nou and published by Sport. It turns out Bartomeu’s statement that he and Rosell were both personally “exonerated” was not entirely true. The pact included an admission that the deal was designed from the start by Barca’s directors to allegedly avoid paying the full amount of taxes due.

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Neymar pictured outside the Madrid court in February.

“The contract and payments were made with the intention of hiding the true operation being done, with the consequent breaking of the relevant tax obligation which Barcelona should have paid. “In this way, Football Club Barcelona, following the express instructions of those authorised to take decisions in its name and occupying the positions of control [at the club], had the final goal of lowering the costs of the operation. ... It was decided to present contracts with companies directly related to the player’s family, hiding the real objective of the payments, which in reality were payments to the player, and in that way avoiding the payment of tax on this salary.”

There was limited outcry. In El Pais, Ramon Besa wrote in an article headlined “The Great Lie” that “the only person convicted is Barca.” But his was almost a lone voice. The general feeling was that, three years after Neymar had moved to the Camp Nou, people were happy the issue was finally coming to a close. It seemed what Barca fans and pundits wanted most was for the court visits and media stories to go away.

Even when Laporta called for socios to fight the tax pact because it stained the club’s image while saving “the behinds” of those really responsible, most observers just shrugged. The team were reigning La Liga and Copa del Rey champions. Neymar was an outstanding player, part of the MSN triumvirate with Messi and Luis Suarez, and he was staying in Barcelona to continue their legacy. 

All was forgiven. All was forgotten. It appeared Barcelona and everybody involved with the deal were free to move forward.

CHAPTER VIII: The Saga Continues

"In this trial, FC Barcelona has always maintained the innocence of all investigated."

FC Barcelona statement, September 2016

In the beginning, Neymar’s deal was worth €57.1 million “full stop,” as Rosell had famously put it. Then there had been the admission of the extra payments to Santos and N&N, for scouting, marketing and more, taking it up to €86.2 million. Then Bartomeu acknowledged the “overall cost of the operation...[was] over €100 million” with the extra taxes and fines paid to the Spanish government.

Picking apart the chain of events, Barca’s internal club democracy was questioned, the board’s talk of transparency made to sound laughable, the political cause of Catalan independence abused and the truth mangled out of all recognition.

And then, on Sept. 23, Pandora’s box was surprisingly reopened by the Audiencia Nacional’s senior judges. The key parties involved with the deal were now facing the possibility of another criminal trial.

Barca’s response was predictable. The following day, the club sent out a short statement that could have been cut and pasted from any of the innumerable similar releases put together since the deal first started to be questioned.

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“FC Barcelona expresses its disagreement with the reasoning for the decision of the High Court to continue the process against Neymar, Neymar Jr., Sandro Rosell, Santos FC and FC Barcelona in the DIS case,” the statement read. “The investigating judge, who had initially agreed to dismiss the case of all those investigated, must now reopen the case and hold a trial. In this trial, FC Barcelona has always maintained the innocence of all investigated.”

Santos did not immediately respond. This was partly because Rodrigues had been expelled from the club in April 2016 because of an unrelated financial issue that is also being investigated by the Brazilian courts. There was also the fact that Oliveira had died in August.

The Neymar family released their own statement. They had received a communication from the Audiencia Nacional, but calm prevailed.

“We remain relaxed, as all the contracts signed were in accordance with legal, ethical and moral precepts and were with the knowledge of Santos and Barca,” they said. “We are even more relaxed, as, according to our lawyers who follow the case in Spain, the decision of the court is definitively far from any criminal responsibility.”

The truth is none of the parties involved in the Neymar deal can be fully confident they will be cleared of wrongdoing. Criminal sentences, including jail sentences, remain real possibilities.

The 4th Criminal Section of the Audiencia Nacional, overseen by judges Angela Murillo, Carmen Paloma Gonzalez and Juan Francisco Martel, have overruled De La Mata. They have accepted the recommendation put forward by prosecutor Perals, on behalf of DIS, that a criminal corruption case should be allowed to proceed against Bartomeu, Rosell and others, including Rodrigues. The charges carry possible jail terms of up to six years.

According to the latest judgment, there is potential evidence via a series of secret documents allegedly showing that Santos and Barcelona colluded. A rival bid from Real Madrid was allegedly ignored—even though they were willing to pay a higher transfer fee.

A date has yet to be set for the case to be heard, but it looks likely to take place at some point in 2017. Appearing in front of the judges will be nothing new for those involved, including Neymar and his parents.

Could it be that this time those responsible for putting together possibly the most investigated deal in football history could pay a much higher price?

The controversy of Neymar’s transfer to Barcelona is far from over.

Photos courtesy of Getty Images.