Almost as soon as Neymar arrived at Paris Saint-Germain last summer, speculation began he was only making a stopover in the French capital, smoothing a move across Clasico lines from Barcelona to Real Madrid.
That has been the idea pushed by many around the Bernabeu throughout the 2017-18 campaign, although the narrative has been strongly countered by PSG's Qatari owners who have firmly maintained their world-record €222 million signing is not going anywhere.
"I'm a bit bored of it already," Neymar said when asked about a potential move last weekend. But it often seems as if the player and the respective coaches at both clubs (Zinedine Zidane and now Thomas Tuchel) are the least important characters in a drama which reaches from football into global power politics.
ESPN FC's Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain correspondents Dermot Corrigan and Jonathan Johnson list the most important figures in what looks certain to be summer 2018's most intriguing transfer saga.
Real Madrid president Perez is a man accustomed to getting what he wants. And Perez has long coveted Neymar, having recognised earlier than most that the Brazilian's mix of natural talents on and off the pitch makes him an ideal Galactico. The embarrassment of losing out to Barcelona's now-disgraced club chief Sandro Rosell when the starlet left Santos in 2013 only made him more determined to finally get his man, whatever the price. A natural politician very comfortable playing a long game from behind the scenes, Perez has intermediaries in various roles tasked with reaffirming that Madrid remain the No.1 destination for the world's top players.
Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani
The Emir of Qatar has invested a lot of money in Neymar, so he will have PSG's biggest say in the Brazilian superstar's future. Although chairman and CEO Nasser Al-Khelaifi handles a lot of the day-to-day business in Paris, Al Thani steps in on certain issues and has the final word over the biggest decisions -- for example, new coach Tuchel was his personal choice.
Investments do not come much bigger than Neymar, and with PSG interest at an all-time high in blockaded Qatar, the South American is key to maintaining that swell of national unity. Al Thani has more on the line here than anybody else. The Emir will not be shown up by Neymar after just one year and not even a full season at that.
For a former amateur player, who then worked as a mechanic before taking charge of his son's affairs, Neymar Senior has proven himself phenomenally adept at navigating the very top level of football's transfer market. Neymar Jr. certainly seems to follow his father's advice and trust that he will look after the family's interests most of all. Madrid and Barcelona were skillfully played off against each other for years ahead of his son's 2013 move to the Camp Nou, when Santos were also badly burned. The Barca board were then easily outfoxed last summer, with the PSG move even timed perfectly so the family could collect a "loyalty bonus" of €26m. Whether the rulers of a sovereign state like Qatar can be outmanoeuvred as easily remains to be seen.
Al Thani's right-hand man and the face of PSG's Qatari paymasters at Parc des Princes, Al-Khelaifi recently promised that Neymar will "2,000 percent" be with the club next season. Like his boss, the Qatari supremo does not like to be made a fool of (just ask exiled Hatem Ben Arfa) and has pulled out all the stops to keep key players in the past, like Marco Verratti and Edinson Cavani. Al-Khelaifi already visited the Neymars in Brazil while the player was recuperating from surgery to inform him of plans to replace coach Unai Emery. UEFA's financial fair play (FFP) might factor into PSG's efforts to keep Neymar but (along with Kylian Mbappe) he is the last player who would be offered up as a potential sacrifice.
By far the lowest profile name on the list, Calafat nevertheless is a key figure in all this. The closest Madrid have to a full time sporting director, Calafat is a former indoor-football-pro-turned-TV-pundit who has long been close to Brazilians at the Bernabeu, from Roberto Carlos to Marcelo. Gradually incorporated into the club's official structure, he became chief scout in South America in summer 2014, and soon afterwards received responsibility for the club's global scouting network. Last summer's securing of teenager Vinicius Junior from Flamengo for €40m was a sign of the trust placed in him from above. Also close to ex-Madrid forward Ronaldo, Calafat's Brazilian background has reportedly helped him build a relationship with both Neymar father and son.
Few agents have the contacts around world football that Zahavi has developed over his decades in the game. The Israeli has reportedly been a quiet presence through Neymar's moves from Santos to Barcelona to PSG, apparently receiving €12m of last summer's €222m deal, which he helped push through due to his close relationship with PSG sporting director Antero Henrique. More recently, Zahavi met with Neymar Senior in April 2018 to discuss their future plans.
A well-known face on the Brazilian football scene, Ribeiro acted as Neymar's official agent from the beginning of his career, and accompanied father and son to the Spanish capital for the 2006 trial. He was then heavily involved in talks with both Madrid and Barca through the Santos years. Although his role in the PSG transfer last summer appeared to be minimal, his public comments have often helped guide media coverage in a certain direction. Ribeiro has remained very close to the Bernabeu decision-makers, helping them sign "New Neymar" Vinicius Jr last summer. And it has long appeared that he personally would like to see the original play at Madrid someday.
Henrique is perhaps the least important voice at PSG, behind those of Al Thani and Al-Khelaifi, but he will still shape Tuchel's squad this summer. Aided by team coordinator Maxwell, who is particularly important to Neymar and his Brazilian teammates, Henrique must work around any FFP obstacles and create a more balanced squad than the one that dominated France but suffered in Europe this season. The Portuguese's role will be to bring in the right players to convince Neymar that PSG are still going places.