[UPDATE: Prosecutors in Spain withdrew fraud and corruption charges against Neymar on Oct. 28 after deciding the case was a civil matter, not a criminal one.]
SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Delcir Sonda still remembers the moment he first saw the boy. Years before he would grow up to become one of the biggest stars in the biggest sport in the world, years before anyone outside of his local community in São Vicente — a dormitory town for the nearby port of Santos — had heard his name, Sonda noticed Neymar playing soccer in a cage.
It was a chance encounter. Sonda was boating with some friends one Sunday afternoon in the mid-2000s when he spotted a group of boys playing on a hard surface inside a fenced enclosure. Intrigued, he asked his friends to stop so he could take a closer look.
“There was one kid there that was just totally different to the others,” Sonda said of Neymar, who would have been 11 or 12 years old at the time. “He got stuck in my head. I never imagined that this kid would one day become my player.”
Years later, they would cross paths again: Neymar, a budding star about to become the focus of an intercontinental bidding war, and Sonda, a supermarket magnate who had fronted Neymar and his family millions of dollars in what he believed was a sure-thing investment in the player’s prodigious soccer talent.
That relationship is set to come under scrutiny in a Spanish court on Monday, when a trial begins over one of the most notorious transfers in soccer history: the 2013 deal that took Neymar to the Spanish club Barcelona.
What’s the trial about? Money, mostly, though the official charges involve corruption and fraud. In his lawsuit, Sonda has cast Neymar, his parents, two of his former teams and several prominent soccer executives as architects of an elaborate scheme that defrauded him out of tens of millions of dollars.
But the case is also about broken promises, bad blood and the dark side of a $7 billion-a-year market in which the world’s richest soccer teams, aided by a network of agents, middlemen and investors, trade players like commodities: multimillion-dollar valuations made of flesh and blood and dreams.
Neymar’s lawyers have said the Spanish authorities lack jurisdiction to hear the case. Barcelona declined to comment for this article.
A rich man when he made the deal in 2009, Sonda is seeking at least $35 million, the figure he says he is owed according to the terms of his original investment in Neymar’s economic rights. But Sonda doesn’t really need the money, he admitted, and he doesn’t particularly seem to care if Neymar and his parents wind up in jail, or if the trial disrupts Brazil’s run-up to the World Cup.
All he wants, he said in an interview in his office high above São Paulo, is the truth.
Roots of a Scandal
Santos, the Brazilian team that became famous more than half a century ago thanks to its star, Pelé, was in a bind in 2009. It desperately needed an influx of money, lots of it, in order to keep Neymar, then 17, at the club long enough to wow the crowds at Vila Belmiro, its chocolate box stadium, while it negotiated the sale of his rights for the huge profit it knew he would bring.
Like most other Brazilian teams of the era, Santos feared losing the teenage Neymar before he had even played a game for the club’s first team. The player’s father, Neymar Sr., had already ensured that his son was well known in elite soccer circles; when Neymar was only 14, his father had taken him to Real Madrid in Spain for a month of training.
Neymar’s performances there quickly created a market — Real Madrid arranged a medical exam for him, and a contract was reportedly prepared — but Santos, citing FIFA regulations at the time, demanded that he return to Brazil. (Neymar later said it had been his choice to come home.) Santos knew it had a rare prize, but so did Neymar’s family. So a curious arrangement was secured: Santos offered Neymar control of 40 percent of his economic rights — the transfer fee that a bigger team would eventually have to pay Santos to acquire him — in exchange for a little more time.
The good news, Santos said, was that the club had a buyer for those rights lined up: Sonda, who with his brother had agreed to pay 5 million reais, then about $2 million, to Neymar and his family for the 40 percent that was on offer.
“They got rich from night to day,” the 74-year-old Sonda said in an interview with The New York Times, pointing at the mahogany table in his 24th-floor office where the contract was signed.
By then, men like Sonda had become valuable components of the Brazilian soccer ecosystem. With clubs mired in a seemingly permanent state of financial crisis, they had to come up with creative solutions to maintain their squads. Enter the empresarios — the businessmen.
To entice their best young players to stay even just another year or two, teams would divide their economic rights and sell those pieces to investors for regular injections of cash.
Knowing that a return was not guaranteed, buyers would typically be wealthy fans of the teams. For Sonda, investing with Santos was partly sentimental, a reminder of his childhood, when he would listen to the team’s matches on transistor radios.
“Pelé, Pelé,” Sonda said, miming a commentator while lifting an imaginary radio to his ear.
Sonda also invested in other clubs, though, notably Internacional, his favorite team. Internacional was based in Rio Grande do Sul, the southern state where Sonda’s Italian grandparents had immigrated, where he and his five brothers were born, and where the family’s supermarket empire began as a local supplier of beans.
The Sondas were their own kind of success story: The family opened its first supermarket in 1974. Today, there are 40, part of a company that employs more than 15,000 workers.
As the family’s fortunes expanded, Sonda and his brother Idi were encouraged to diversify into soccer. In 2004, they set up a company named DIS — for their first initials and the family name — to buy shares in players.
Sonda and his brother saw the business as a way to invest in something they enjoyed, he said, a project that could serve as a charity endeavor but also offer occasional returns. The budding soccer players he got to meet as an investor, he said, sometimes reminded him of his own struggles as a poor boy dreaming of a better life.
Sonda said he could not recall how many players DIS had invested in over the years, but the players DIS did sign received soccer equipment and occasional stipends. A few eventually played for Brazil’s national team. Some of those who did not make it, Sonda said, were eventually recruited to work in the supermarket empire.
That was never going to be the case with Neymar.
The Golden Boy
Neymar Jr. was always destined for stardom. Within two years of his debut for Santos as a 17-year-old in 2009, he was close enough to touch it. Even before he had played a game, though, the maneuvering for control of his future was taking shape.
Money had always been a pressure point in the relationship with Neymar’s family, Sonda said. Before agreeing to the original deal with DIS, Sonda said, Neymar Sr. had enlisted Wagner Ribeiro, then one of Brazil’s top agents, to try to extract a higher price. Ribeiro suggested that other clubs and other bidders, including Chelsea’s owner, Roman Abramovich, were also interested in the 40 percent stake in Neymar. The price, Ribeiro implied, should be higher.
The talks went on until midnight before Sonda had enough. He would pay no more than his original offer of about $2 million. The negotiations, he said, were over. The next day, Neymar and his parents came to Sonda’s wood-paneled office and signed the paperwork.
For Sonda, the first inkling that something was amiss came a year or so after Neymar had started playing for the Santos first team. Until then, Sonda recalled, he had received regular invitations to play pool and eat pizza with Neymar and his family after games at the home Neymar had bought with some of the $2 million he had received. By 2011, though, he began to notice the presence of other guests, including Pini Zahavi, the Israeli agent known for brokering some of the biggest trades in soccer. “He started appearing because he wanted to take him to England,” Sonda said of Zahavi.
At the same time, according to Sonda, Neymar’s father had begun asking Sonda to sell back his son’s economic rights. Neymar Sr.’s offers kept rising, eventually reaching 8 million euros, Sonda said. “‘You already made a lot,’” Sonda recalled him saying.
Cashing in his investment on the cheap, though, was “an indecent proposal,” Sonda said. He had already seen news reports that European teams, including Real Madrid, were willing to pay as much as 70 million euros for Neymar. That kind of fee would have meant nearly 30 million euros for DIS — a return of 15 times what the Sondas’ company had invested in 2009.
At Santos, the stakes were rising, too. The club had already renegotiated Neymar’s contract. Now, it bowed to a demand from Neymar Sr. to provide a letter empowering him to negotiate his son’s transfer price with other teams, even though Neymar Jr. was still under contract with Santos.
Armed with the letter — the legality of which DIS disputes, but a document required under FIFA’s rules — Neymar Sr. and a group of agents secured meetings with some of the world’s biggest teams: Chelsea. Bayern Munich. Real Madrid.
Behind the scenes, though, in a deal that neither Santos nor DIS would be aware of until years later, Neymar Sr. and Barcelona had already come to an agreement.
In it, the club agreed to pay 10 million euros immediately to a company set up by Neymar’s parents, and then 30 million more once Neymar signed with Barcelona at the end of his Santos contract in 2013. A penalty clause requiring the return of the entire 40 million euros ensured Neymar would not change his mind.
DIS wrote to Barcelona, demanding to know if rumors of a deal for Neymar were true. The club denied that it had an agreement, Sonda said. (Barcelona declined to comment on Sonda’s contention; the Neymar transfer has previously caused legal problems for the team, and both the club and two of its former presidents are defendants in the coming trial.)
In the spring of 2013, Santos blinked: Worried it might lose its prize asset for nothing, it agreed to sell Neymar’s rights to Barcelona for the discounted price of 17.1 million euros (about $22.5 million at the time). A few ancillary agreements sweetened the deal slightly, and the full price for Neymar — more than $100 million — emerged only after a Barcelona member took the club to court.
But because none of Barcelona’s secret payments to Neymar’s family were part of the official transfer price, Sonda’s company was cut out of what it says was its rightful share. In the end, DIS received only 6.8 million euros.
“They sold my 40 percent to Barcelona,” Sonda fumed. “They cheated me.”
Baker McKenzie, the law firm representing Neymar, declined to discuss specifics of the case. It has, however, dismissed the very basis of Sonda’s lawsuit, as well as the Spanish court’s jurisdiction, because the transfer involved Brazilian nationals and took place in Brazil. In that country, the firm has pointed out, corruption between individuals is not a crime.
The End Game
Neymar was ordered to attend at least the first day of the trial, and so on Monday morning he arrived early at the court in Barcelona. The reunion of the two sides inside could be awkward.
At a preliminary hearing in Madrid in 2016, Neymar claimed to not know Sonda. That stung, Sonda said, recalling the days of postgame pizzas, barbecues and the occasional games of pool. Paulo Nasser, one of Sonda’s lawyers, rebutted the player’s claim by pulling out his phone to show a photo of Neymar smiling beside his father and Idi Sonda. The photo was taken at Idi Sonda’s beach house in the resort town of Guarujá.
Along with Spanish prosecutors, Delcir Sonda is seeking millions in damages as well as prison sentences for Neymar, his parents and several executives implicated in the case. But he insisted the case was not about money. At 74 and already wealthy, he said, he is seeking only to right a wrong.
Barcelona officials have reached out several times over the years to try to resolve the dispute, and have even traveled to his home, he said. But he has always rebuffed them. “I could have accepted their money, but it’s not important,” he said. “I need to know what happened.”
That the trial will begin only weeks before Neymar is set to lead Brazil in the World Cup is not in his hands, he said. “I don’t get to decide when justice is served,” Sonda said.
Besides, he added: “I don’t think they’ll miss Neymar. Now if it was Pelé, then there’d be a problem. But it isn’t Pelé.”