Barca, Real's ICC Clasico in Miami defined by Neymar, Bale uncertainty
MIAMI -- We're a month away from the start of the European season, training camp is in full swing, and we could see, in the space of a few days, two of the greatest front threes -- and perhaps the most recognizable acronyms in football -- blown apart just as Real Madrid take on Barcelona in the Miami Clasico. And if they come, the seismic changes will be driven by money and market forces as much as sporting decisions by management.
It would take shattering -- more than doubling, in one case -- the world transfer record twice in the space of a few days. But that is no longer the remote, back-of-the-envelope chatter it once was.
Madrid's storied "BBC" (Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo) could be broken up after four seasons, three Champions League titles and 365 goals. The club's monster bid -- $186 million, rising to $209m based on performance -- for Monaco's teenage sensation, Kylian Mbappe, doesn't automatically signal a changing of the guard. But it's not a coincidence that within 24 hours of the news getting out, Bale was heavily linked with a return to the Premier League, while others began questioning Benzema's future.
As for Barcelona's "MSN" of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, its breakup could be down to factors beyond its control.
Like all players in the Spanish league, Neymar has a "buyout clause," a number in his contract at which he becomes a free agent. His was set when he signed a new contract just last year, and Barcelona thought it was set so high to become irrelevant. They were wrong. Paris Saint-Germain are, apparently, willing to fork out the €222m ($260m) required to free him from the Camp Nou.
Of course, Neymar has to agree to leave, and right now, what he's thinking is anyone's guess. It has prompted copious amounts of tea-leaf reading and behind-the-scenes efforts (to persuade him to stay and, from his Brazil teammates already at PSG, to leave) and they're bound to continue Saturday night in Miami. After all, he has until Aug. 31 to make up his mind.
You may think it's a decision motivated by financial greed and a busy-body agent/dad; after all, this is how he got to Barcelona in the first place. Or you may think it's a case of a superstar in the prime of his career realizing that his place in history is by taking a very good team and making it great rather than playing second fiddle on a team that was already great when he joined.
Whatever the case, this story rumbles on, and from Barcelona's perspective, it's unprecedented, at least in recent years. This is a juggernaut club that does not lose its superstars ... unless it wants to. The last time it happened was in 2000, when Luis Figo activated his buyout clause to join archrival Real Madrid. It ended with insults, acrimony and, famously, the severed head of a pig being thrown his way during his first Clasico back at the Camp Nou.
This is one of the themes that sets this Clasico apart: uncertainty.
It's greater on the Barcelona side, of course. Not just because of Neymar, and the psychological impact of impotence when Barca are faced with PSG's munificence, but also because this is a team coming off a lackluster campaign by their standards, one with a new manager (Ernesto Valverde) who gets his first crack at a superclub at the age of 53.
But it exists in Madrid, too, as they try to become the first team in four decades to three-peat as European champions.
In the Galacticos era, getting Real Madrid to succeed has been mostly about managing the egos and superstars and achieving that precarious, delicate balance that makes it all work.
Zinedine Zidane -- maybe because he was the original Galactico -- managed to do it last season. Now, he's facing a situation where arguably his best player down the stretch last year (Isco) is less than 12 months from free agency and where there's potentially a world-record signing on its way (Mbappe). That's in addition to the fact that, sooner or later, Ronaldo will have to come to terms with his own mortality (and require further man management), and Bale is coming off a nasty injury.
It's rare to see Barcelona and Real Madrid in this state of flux -- one by choice, one less so -- in late July. And that only makes Saturday night more intriguing. We're in the nose-bleed seats of footballing excellence here, which only makes the consequences of a misstep that much more severe.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.