PARIS — Denials from Barcelona are doing little to halt the fervor that Brazil star Neymar could be joining Paris Saint-Germain in a transfer that more than doubles the world record.
Neymar is still playing for Barcelona, warming up for the new season by scoring twice against Juventus in a friendly on Saturday.
But Neymar left the stadium in New Jersey without saying anything to reporters, allowing speculation he will imminently join PSG for 220 million euros ($253 million) to persist.
The Barcelona coach and president have been more willing to speak, and both are adamant the mercurial forward is staying put.
“We want Neymar to be with us,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said after the 2-1 victory over Juventus. “We know the importance he has in our game, our dressing room, the team dynamic, and we want him with us. It’s clear.”
Barcelona’s league campaign begins on Aug. 20, while PSG’s season opener is in less than two weeks on Aug. 5.
ANTICIPATION IN PARIS
Reports in Spain and France state that the transfer could be completed by the end of July.
“Un Pari Magique” (A Magic Gamble) read the front page headline on sports daily L’Equipe on Saturday. It was accompanied by a photo of Neymar with his hand on his forehead like a ship’s captain, gazing into the horizon as if longingly eyeing a future destination.
The headline is a play on words with the favorite chant among PSG fans of “Paris est Magique” (Paris is Magic).
Not magical enough to win the Champions League yet, or even advance past the quarterfinals in the past four seasons. To challenge for European soccer’s top prize, coach Unai Emery told L’Equipe earlier this week: “PSG must have one of the top five players in the world. We are looking to sign one this summer.”
Neymar certainly fits the bill. While not at the level of Barcelona star Lionel Messi or Real Madrid’s prolific Ronaldo, the 25-year-old Neymar has longer left at the top and has not even reached his peak. Should PSG sign Neymar, the transfer would smash the previous world-record fee of 105 million euros (then $116 million) that Manchester United paid a year ago for France midfielder Paul Pogba.
It would be a massive coup for Emery given his troubled first season.
PSG relinquished its league title to Monaco and made unwanted history by becoming the first team eliminated from the Champions League knockout stages having won the first leg 4-0. PSG lost 6-1 away to Barcelona in the last 16, with PSG’s tormentor being Neymar.
The Qatari-owned club’s courting of Neymar dates back to April last year.
With uncertainty surrounding Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s future, PSG had discussions with the player’s father and his agent, Wagner Riberio. PSG reportedly was ready to pay 190 million euros.
But two months later, Neymar reached an agreement to extend his Barcelona contract until 2021, with his release clause pushed up to the existing 220 million euros and 250 million ($288 million) by the summer of 2018.
It raised the question whether he just used PSG club as a bargaining tool. However, in September, Ribeiro publicly stated that Neymar had been “close to joining PSG.”
Fast forward, and sections of the Brazilian and Spanish media reignited the deal this month, saying that Neymar wants to emerge out of Messi’s shadow — which couldn’t happen for a while seeing as Messi has agreed a new Barcelona contract until 2021.
But the last thing Valverde needs is losing Neymar.
“There are rumors, we’re aware of them,” Valverde said. “We’re happy with him and he’s happy with us.”
According to Spanish reports, Neymar has told club Josep Bartomeu that he wants to leave. But speaking Thursday during an interview at The Associated Press, Bartomeu said firmly : “He is not on the market.”
Landing Neymar would be an even bigger coup than signing Ibrahimovic in 2012.
FEELING AT HOME
The PSG squad features several of Neymar’s compatriots. The captain is Thiago Silva, whose center back partner is fellow Brazilian Marquinhos. PSG also recently signed rampaging Brazilian full back Dani Alves from Juventus.
PSG’s Parc des Princes loves a Samba beat, too.
The mesmeric Ronaldinho was a huge favorite from 2001-03, securing a big move to Barcelona — where he won the Golden Ball.
Before him came Rai, the classy midfield general who broke down in tears after waving good bye to PSG fans following a brilliant spell from 1993-98 where he scored 72 goals and dazzled in the City of Light. There was also Valdo — Rai’s astute midfield partner. Attacking right back Leonardo — who became the club’s sporting director, signing Ibrahimovic — and the recently retired left back Maxwell left lasting impressions.
FITTING INTO THE TEAM
Which position would Neymar play for PSG? Would he fit in or clash with star striker Edinson Cavani?
Awkward questions for PSG.
Neymar can play on both flanks, but should be the leading main man as center forward.
That role already belongs to Cavani, who signed a new PSG contract until 2020 after netting a league-leading 35 goals last season.
Having waited three years to become PSG’s No. 1, slogging it out wide right to accommodate Ibrahimovic, it is highly unlikely Cavani would welcome doing the same again if Neymar joins.
Equally, having played a supporting role to Messi and — somewhat — to Luis Suarez for the past two seasons, Neymar would not want to play second fiddle again.
PSG is desperate to join Europe’s elite, but signing Neymar may produce a conflict the club should avoid. For his arrival could push Cavani out of the door, depriving PSG of its best scorer.
PSG may be better served signing Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez, who is not as skillful as Neymar but more hard-working.
Playing Neymar at striker would add flair, but arguably less goals: raising the question whether it’s actually worth it for PSG to sign him.
More AP soccer coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/apf-Soccer