As Miami enjoys a thrilling Clasico, the saga of Neymar's future rumbles on
MIAMI -- For many, it did not matter: The ICC Miami version of El Clasico was not going to be overshadowed. 65,000 plus, clad in the colors of Barcelona and Real Madrid's eternal rivalry, braved the soupy South Florida night to see the stars they usually only see in HD and in two dimensions and were treated to a show.
But for the rest, particularly those whose blood runs Blaugrana or who simply are fascinated by the sport's journey through time, there was a question haunting the heavy air over Miami's Hard Rock stadium like an uninvited presence.
Was this Neymar's final appearance in a Barcelona jersey? Were we really about to witness a doubling of the world record transfer fee? Was the likeliest heir to the Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo duopoly, which has dominated the game for the past decade, really going to turn his back on the cathedral of the Camp Nou and the spotlight of La Liga for away days at Angers and Amiens?
Those questions remain unanswered.
There was no public farewell. No dramatic heel turn. No sudden departure from the script... although when Dani Carvajal clattered into Neymar inside of a minute and he got up slowly, limping noticeably for the next minute or so, you couldn't help but wonder if maybe he wasn't reaching for the escape hatch of an early substitution.
After all, if you were on the verge of a half-billion dollar-plus deal -- between transfer fee and wages over the next five years -- would you really jeopardize it by playing in a preseason friendly against your arch-rival?
But whatever else people might call Neymar over the next month, nobody can dare call him unprofessional. He stayed out there for 73 minutes, racing around the pitch, dispensing nuggets of magic and coming close to scoring on several occasions.
After the game ended in a 3-2 win for Barcelona, those who looked for clues as to what might happen next were left disappointed. Neymar waved to the crowd no more and no less than he would have in normal circumstances. He joked and laughed with his teammates. He spent a seeming eternity chatting with Casemiro and Marcelo -- club rivals, yes, but also Selecao teammates -- hands placed over mouth to deny lip-readers. At one point, all three doubled over in laughter, guffawing at something Marcelo said.
Maybe one day, when he writes his autobiography or, perhaps more likely, produces some sort of virtual reality biopic of his life, we might find out what this evening was really like for Neymar. But, for right now, good luck finding any meaning there; this was business as usual.
Except it wasn't. We're days away from either the most audacious and expensive footballing decision in history or, possibly, the most dramatic, high profile U-turn anyone can remember and the guy in the middle of it appears to be in the eye of the hurricane: unperturbed and inscrutable.
Meanwhile, everything swirls around him. Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu is insisting that if Paris Saint-Germain want Neymar -- and he wants to leave -- they'll need to pay every last cent of his €222 million release clause.
Gerard Pique is telling ESPN's Hannah Storm that Neymar "doesn't know what he wants" though, increasingly, that seems like wishful thinking: There are enough people who are convinced his mind is made up.
PSG's lawyers and commercial folks have put together what's bound to be one of the most complicated and detailed contracts around, because Neymar isn't just a footballer, he's equal parts corporate entity, mission statement and magic money tree.
Parisian bean-counters are figuring out how they can make this work without breaching UEFA's Financial Fair Play Regulations and agents everywhere are asking themselves whether we're living through a paradigm shift.
That's because, if Neymar can justifiably be worth a quarter of a billion dollars, then every generic Dieter Defender, Frankie Footballer, Simone Striker and Carlos Kickball they represent is worth a whole heck of a lot more than they thought.
This is seismic. And it's not just the size of the deal, it's the psychological blow it would deal to an entity that, rightly, views itself as "more than a club." One that is on the precipice of seeing someone walk into their house, whip out a roll of bills and walk out with a chunk of the family jewels. And all this while being entirely powerless to stop what is happening, beyond pleading and begging.
There will be time to break this down, if and when it happens... or doesn't happen. Time to learn how Barcelona will plug that Neymar-shaped hole in their lineup, for example.
Time to begin to understand how Barcelona could have gotten it so wrong less than year ago when they extended Neymar's contract and set a buyout clause that someone might actually be willing to pay in the very near future.
Time to figure out what tough choices PSG might make, given that Neymar would be joining a squad already replete with attacking midfielder/winger types -- more than $250m worth in fact -- in Lucas Moura, Julian Draxler, Javier Pastore, Angel Di Maria and Goncalo Guedes.
Time to see what type of final deal these two clubs ultimately work out, since a player-plus-cash transfer --- rather than a straight buyout -- is considerably more beneficial to both parties from a practical, accounting and FFP standpoint.
Time to investigate whether any deal ends up being as murky and with implications as far-reaching as the one that took Neymar to the Camp Nou in the first place in 2013, a move that ultimately cost Barcelona president Sandro Rosell his job and his freedom.
And, most of all, time to try and understand whether Neymar's decision was a function of wanting to be the main man and turn a great club into a legendary one or, more crassly, about cold, hard, cash.
All of that will have to wait. All we have for now is a supremely talented megastar who, for a few hours on a Miami night, gave the impression that absolutely nothing is going on.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.