Neymar signed with Barcelona over Real Madrid
Neymar joined Barcelona shortly after winning Player of the Tournament in the 2013 Confederations Cup. Antonio Lacerda/EPA.

Florentino Perez is a soccer magpie. Whenever the sport’s next shiny thing surfaces, the Real Madrid president, is there, ready to pick it up. It’s this instinct that led to the ‘Galacticos’ era at the Santiago Bernabeu. It has been the defining ideology of Perez’s premiership, split over two separate tenures, with Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Figo, Ronaldo, David Beckham, Kaka, James Rodriguez and Michael Owen all signed as trophies. Neymar, seven or eight years ago, was identified as the club’s next shimmering superstar.

It was around this time that the teenager, already the face of Brazilian soccer and destined to be so for the next decade at least, was plotting his much-hyped move to Europe. Neymar could have chosen any elite club of his liking, but Spain’s big two looked to be most natural fit. Real Madrid made their case, but Barcelona ultimately lured the Brazilian, signing the forward from Santos for a fee of €57 million.

Of course, we all know how Neymar’s time at the Camp Nou panned out, walking away from his destiny as Lionel Messi’s natural heir in 2017, but his decision to spurn Real Madrid in the first place left a profound impression on Perez. He vowed that he would never again miss out on a Brazilian superstar and has made good on that word, targeting the country’s best young talent in the years since.

Buy young, buy Brazilian

First, Vinicius Junior was signed for €45 million–a then record fee for a player under 19–from Flamengo, with the winger only boasting 17 minutes of senior soccer to his name at the time of the transfer. He had, however, finished top scorer for Brazil at the Under-17 South American Championship just weeks earlier, alerting Real Madrid to his potential.

Then there was the signing, also for €45 million, of Rodrygo, also a winger, from Santos last summer. Unlike Vinicius, he had established himself as a first team figure in Brazil before making the move to the Spanish capital, but Real Madrid’s deep scouting of the country was still evident in this deal, signing the teenager before most other European clubs had even seen him play.

The strategy continued further with the signing of Reinier Jesus in January. Likened to Kaka, Real Madrid paid €35 million to lure the playmaker from Flamengo, only adding to the Brazilian flavour that already exists at the Santiago Bernabeu. The 18-year-old has yet to make his Real Madrid debut, instead playing for the club’s Castilla side, but just like Rodrygo and Vinicius, he is expected to become a central pillar for Los Blancos for years to come.

Rodrygo and Vinicius are already key figures, making 43 appearances between them this season. Neither player is the finished product, with the latter in particular as infuriating as he is exceptional in his decision-making. Regardless, the fact that Real Madrid have placed such faith in the pair illustrates how determined they are not to miss out on the next Neymar.

Not giving on the real thing

It’s possible Neymar himself could still end up in the Spanish capital, with Real Madrid believed to hold an interest in taking the Brazilian back to Spain. Some have even speculated that the Brazilian made the move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain so that he could ultimately pitch up at the Santiago Bernabeu without the tricky politics of making a switch directly from the Camp Nou.

Even if Neymar never wears all-white, he might have shaped the next decade at Real Madrid all the same. His decision to join Barcelona over Los Blancos prompted a role reversal between the two clubs. For years, Real Madrid had been the short-sighted, big spenders in the transfer market, putting the value of names above their suitability. Now the Madrileños are focusing their spending on youth while Barca are the ones putting together an All-Star team–and somewhat haphazardly at that if you consider the signings of Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann.

Brazil isn’t the only South American country being scoured by Real Madrid. The club’s chief scout Juni Calafat has spent the last few years building a scouting network that stretches all the way across the continent. Four years ago, Fede Valverde was spotted at Penarol, with the Uruguayan now a first team regular. Real Madrid could return to Uruguay for future additions, with another Penarol youngster, Facundo Pellistri, reportedly on their radar.

Even as the club casts their net beyond Brazil, the green and yellow tinge to Real Madrid is unmistakable. They have been helped by the rebooting of Brazil’s talent factory in recent years. Long renowned as the most productive soccer nation on earth, their talent pool became markedly shallower around the turn of the decade after the likes of Ronaldo, Kaka and Ronaldinho had faded. Now, though, their conveyer belt has started turning again and Real Madrid have positioned themselves at the basket end, catching anything that comes off.