In front of a record-breaking 82,104 fans — the most ever for a soccer game in New Jersey, Barcelona saw off Juventus 2–1 in an exciting International Champions Cup match at MetLife Stadium Saturday night featuring two quality first-half goals from Neymar.
Veteran defender Giorgio Chiellini scored a towering header to halve the lead for Juventus but Barcelona’s Brazilian superstar stole the show. Neymar was electrifying and, considering he’s been at the center of the media storm surrounding the Catalan club, it was fitting that he should remain so after an impressive 45 minutes.
It’s funny how transfer news — recently dubbed ‘the original fake news’ by the New York Times — can create a whirlwind of controversy for fans and players alike. Ever since the story broke that PSG were strongly considering activating Neymar’s release clause from Barcelona and that the Brazilian forward was ‘open’ to the idea of a move to Paris, the soccer world has been alight with the news of what would be the world’s most expensive transfer to date.
It seemed like every group of Barcelona and Juventus fans were discussing the rumors in earnest while waiting outside of MetLife Stadium so I decided to get their opinions on the subject. While some fans insisted he was ‘100% staying,’ many more assured me ‘he was going, it was just a matter of time.’ It’s interesting how transfer rumors, rather than factual news stories about a player or club, are often more earnestly discussed among fans of the beautiful game.
Whether or not the reports are true, the news surrounding the young Barcelona playmaker has made headlines from Pittsburgh to Paris. Unsurprisingly, speculation about Neymar’s future dominated the press’ inquiries the day before Barcelona took on Juventus at MetLife Stadium, despite the fact that Ernesto Valverde wanted nothing to do with it. “I know you are eager to talk about the Neymar topic, but there is nothing to say until something happens,” said the new Blaugrana manager in his pre-match press conference.
It’s hard to blame the press for salivating at such a juicy prospect. Neymar’s departure for PSG would be an exciting story that any and all journalists would jump on. Plus, preseason friendlies are hardly the spectacle they aim to be, despite the International Champions Cup’s pomp and circumstance. They draw large crowds at matches with big stars, but the level of play is that of, well, a team in preseason.
Sure, managers can get an idea of what their players have to offer ahead of a long and arduous season, but very few definitive assessments can be made during a game with so many substitutions and such limited flow.
According to Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri, the friendly was simply a way of getting better acquainted with his squad. “We didn’t even have a full practice together as a team yet, so it was a very important match to launch us into our preparations for the season.” For a side who are still looking to find their feet ahead of the start of the season, the Champions League runners up looked in fine form. A one-goal preseason loss in which many from the starting XI were only introduced at halftime, among them crowd-favorites Paulo Dybala, Alex Sandro and Gonzalo Higuain, clearly doesn’t bother Allegri much. For him, this was a learning experience.
There’s an interesting juxtaposition of expectations when it comes to a preseason tournament like the International Champions Cup. Its marquee matchups draw huge crowds, and the showdown at MetLife more than lived up to the hype with an attendance of 82,104.
However, for the European clubs making the trek stateside for training and fixtures ahead of the season, it’s never really that serious. Naturally, it takes players time to reach peak fitness after making the return to training. And yet, for fans paying the hefty price to come support their favorite clubs, it’s a bit difficult to understand that their team’s best players will only feature for half of the time.
Perhaps that’s why certain fans took the risk of literally leaving the stands and rushing onto the field during Barcelona’s training session on Friday evening at Red Bull Arena. As many as five fans attempted to break through security to reach Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez as the team concluded its practice. One made it as far as Neymar and hugged the Brazilian before stadium staff finally reached him and removed him from the grounds.
After asking Valverde how it felt to get the kind of support Barcelona have received during their US tour and whether or not such incidences worried him, I was surprised by his matter-of-fact response. “We understand that those fans [who rushed the field] did that for their love of the players and the club. [In the end], it was only four or five people who managed it and it’s nothing to be alarmed about. We know that they want to see these players and this is exactly why we are here: for them.”
Ultimately, that’s what these matches are all about — providing a way for international fans of European clubs to see their favorite team without having to leave the country to do so. The success of the tournament depends on these supporters being willing to pay premium prices for preseason friendlies. But if they’re all as exciting as Saturday’s match, fans will get their money’s worth.