Neuer's future not so clear cut
Insiders believe Manuel Neuer already has a verbal agreement to join Bayern
Schalke feels Neuer's price tag should be raised in light of recent performances
There's a chance that Schalke could opt to keep Neuer for another season
There's a popular saying in Germany: "Geld schießt Tore" -- money scores goals. It's a self-evident success formula in professional soccer, where a team's expenditure on players correlates strongly with results on the pitch. Bayern Munich, as the biggest and richest club in the Bundesliga, has always relied on that simple equation and will do so again this summer, when the squad will be strengthened, regardless of Champions League qualification. Bayern is currently one point a drift of Hannover, who occupy the third spot.
Money will buy goals. But the price for no goals will be even higher this summer, maybe too high even. Every excellent save that Manuel Neuer made against Manchester United in the Champions League semifinal first leg added, if not a zero, then at least another million to his potential transfer fee. And that's not journalistic hyperbole. Twenty million euros ($29M) was, strictly unofficially of course, the sum that Schalke 04 was ready to accept for its goalkeeper, who is out of contract in 2012. The next day, sources at the club strategically leaked to Bild that the price-tag had just gone up to €25m ($37M). Bayern president Uli Hoeness was aghast. "We won't pay astronomical sums," countered the 59 year old.
Schalke sporting director Horst Heldt stuck to the Royal Blues' official line on the matter. "His [Neuer's] value on the transfer market is already very high," said the Heldt. "I don't know if it can still go up, but watching this match [against United], I said to myself, 'Why sell such a player?'" Neuer's contribution, Heldt added, was invaluable, perhaps to the point where it made more sense to keep him for another season, then let him go for free.
This past Sunday, Heldt had looked distinctly uncomfortable on live German television when Bayern adviser Paul Breitner hinted that the Neuer deal was practically done already. "The ball is in Schalke's court now," the former Bayern and Real Madrid midfielder had said, "Schalke don't have to sell, that is true. But I'm sure they want to reduce their debt of over €250m." "It's about €200m, actually," Heldt replied acidly, "and we don't have to do anything."
Concrete negotiations between the clubs are yet to start so these statements should be seen as attempts to set a framework. Both sides will claim that the other one has painted itself into a corner, and they're both right. Losing out on €20M plus to save face over Neuer certainly won't make sense for Schalke, despite the fact that the €50M ($74M) it generated from the extended run in Europe has eased the financial burden. S04 could only justify such intransigence if it genuinely believed that Neuer could single-handedly take it to the Champions League again. For all his brilliance, he's still only a goalkeeper, though, so that's not a realistic scenario.
The Bavarians have nowhere to go, either. By making their pursuit of the Germany keeper public and nailing their colors firmly on the mast, they now have to get their man, even it means well paying over the odds: €20M is already a very high a price for a professional who will be a free agent in 12 months time. €25M will be bordering on exuberance. If Schalke is really intent to play hardball and quote, say €30M ($44M), there is a (small) possibility that Neuer might end up staying for another season.
Two factors might complicate things further. The first is interest from Manchester United. Schalke, for one, would love nothing more than to sell Neuer abroad; that way they would get the money AND the satisfaction of thwarting Bayern, whose bullying tactics have not gone down well in Gelsenkirchen at all. The Royal Blues would even be prepared to take a little less in that particular scenario. Alex Ferguson, who has reportedly made up his mind in favor of Atletico Madrid's David De Gea -- despite, we are told, United goalkeeping coach Eric Steele recommending Neuer -- could still change tack. Especially if Neuer can follow up his man of the match performance in Germany with an equally mesmerizing display at Old Trafford next Wednesday.
However, there's an insurmountable problem: Neuer himself is adamant that he wants to be in Munich next season and Schalke simply can't sell him to anyone else against his wishes. Ferguson acknowledged as much on Tuesday, when he dismissed suggestions that the German could still be persuaded to join his team. "I think he's going somewhere else," said the Scot, with a knowing smile. Ferguson is not one for chasing lost causes.
Bayern simply got there first, blatantly disregarding Bundesliga rules that are supposed to stop players from being "tapped up." One source familiar with proceedings has told SI.com that the club's first approach to the player was made before the World Cup in South Africa. By September 2010, when Neuer first hinted at the possibility of leaving the team he's played for since he was four years old, some sort of understanding had been reached. The existence of a pre-contractual agreement has been denied by Breitner -- "it wouldn't be enforceable anyway," he said, quite correctly -- but Neuer seems, at the very least, to have given Bayern his word. (Hoeness and Co. have history in that respect: in 2002, they deposited €10M ($14.8M) in Sebastian Deisler's bank account before he had signed a contract with them. The money was officially declared as a "loan"). This would explain the nervousness in Munich when manager Louis van Gaal, since dismissed, all of a sudden promoted 22-year-old Thomas Kraft to the No. 1 spot in January. The club were afraid that hard-core supporters, who dislike Neuer for his strong Schalke affiliations -- he used to be an ultra fan in the stands as a teenager -- would use Kraft's emergence as ammunition for more anti-Neuer protests. Which they did.
As it happens, Bayern will host Schalke in the Bundesliga on Saturday. This is the second possible complication. A strong negative stance from the Bayern supporters might yet put some doubt into Neuer's head. Why go to a club where the most vocal set of fans don't want you? To say that Munich is anxious about the sort of reception the keeper will get is an understatement.
Neuer going to Bayern for between €20m to €25m is still by far the likeliest resolution. But there is one veritable nightmare outcome for the Reds: an inspired Neuer helps the visitors to an away win that would all but kill off Bayern's chances to play in the Champions League next season, followed by massive, sustained anti-Neuer chants in the Allianz Arena. No goals, in that scenario would cost the Bavarians about €40M ($59M) in lost Champions League revenue, as well as the player they so crave.