While Neymar may look and occasionally act like any other 18-year-old, the Santos and Brazil starlet has learnt the hard way about the importance of choosing his words very carefully. Catapulted from promising youngster to superstar in a matter of months, 2010 has seen the fleet-footed attacker begin to turn his vast potential into goals and silverware.
Having helped his club win two titles and become Brazil’s great hope for success on home soil at the 2014 FIFA World Cup™, as well as receiving and turning down a multi-million pound offer from English giants Chelsea, Neymar’s world has changed almost beyond recognition. Scorer of a remarkable 43 goals in 53 games so far in 2010, the jewel in O Peixe’s crown has also experienced lows to go with the highs of this year. Most notable was the part he played in the dismissal of Santos coach Dorival Junior, just one of the many issues he discussed in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Neymar, would you agree that this has been a decisive year in your career?
Neymar: I think so, I’ve had a lot to celebrate this year. I’ve come on from being the Neymar I was last year, by turning promise and potential into reality.
In footballing terms, which aspects of your game have progressed most in 2010?
I think I’ve come on in every area: my style of play, my strength... In 2010 I’ve managed to build on everything I did in 2009, and that’s even reflected in the number of goals I scored, for example.
How about off the pitch?
I experienced a number of situations this year that have really helped, not just on the pitch but off it too. So, I think that this was a really pivotal year in my life - a year that I’ll never forget. I’ve learnt a lot and managed to become the player I am today.
Which of those experiences has proved most useful?
Listen, I’ve been through some tough times, and you always learn more from those experiences than when everything’s going well. For example, you have the episode with Dorival. Though it turned out to be a very good experience, and one I learned a lot from, I hope not to have to go through something like that every again.
Do you think you’re a better person after that episode?
Ah, I don’t think it made me a better person... I don’t think that it changed me. I’m still the same person, I’m just a bit wiser for the experience. I’m now better prepared to cope with everything in life, not just situations like that.
Tell us about the uncertain period that followed the offer to join Chelsea...
That was another good experience for me: saying no to a move to Europe and choosing to stay at Santos. It was tough making that decision, but I don’t regret it. I think that my family and I made the right choice and I’m very happy to have done so.
Do you think that other Brazilian youngsters might follow your example should they find themselves in a similar situation?
I think so. Maybe young players will follow that example and start putting more weight in staying at a Brazilian club for a bit longer.
You mentioned you’re feeling physically stronger this year. What kind of work have you done in this area?
Here at Santos the coaching staff have been doing muscle-building work with me since I was in the club’s academy. Thanks to that, over time I’ve been getting stronger and gaining muscle mass: I’ve even gained weight compared to last year. And we didn’t want me to lose any speed, so we’ve been very careful about the work I’ve done. But I don’t think that’ll happen, because I’ve got a naturally quite skinny frame.
Robinho, who is a similar type of player to you, was an idol of yours when he was starring in the Santos first team and you were coming through the youth system. Do you now enjoy a similar status with the club’s youth players?
(Laughs) It’s cool, isn’t it? Things have come full circle for me: Robinho was my idol and I think that currently I’m an idol to the lads in the youth system. It’s very nice and very flattering to have fans and for anyone to consider you their idol. So, it’s something that fills me with pride. It’s a dream that I’ve been chasing and one that, thanks to God and a lot of hard work, has come true.
But there are clearly still areas where you can develop as a player, wouldn’t you agree?
Of course, particularly given my age. Every day I learn a little more, both as a player and a person.
That said, it must still be nice to hear a coach as notoriously demanding as Fluminense’s Muricy Ramalho say that you’re impossible to mark and the best player in Brazil?
Wow, I can’t even put into words how it feels to hear that from someone like Muricy, who’s a great coach, a winner and who’s worked with so many great players. To hear someone like him say all that about me was a dream come true and makes me really happy.
For the first half of this year Santos played a very attacking line-up, with you, Robinho and Andre all playing up front. In order for that to function you had to drop back into midfield when the team lost possession. That’s a rare quality in such a young attacker, isn’t it?
Well, the thing is that that was a necessary part of that tactical formation, and both Robinho and I enjoyed playing that role. We even used to drop into the middle to help the defenders too, something we do in the national team now as well. We all used to defend as a unit and when we attacked, because of the pace we had in the team, we were able to evade our opponents and create scoring chances.
You’ve been part of the senior Brazil side under Mano Menezes, but your next tournament in the yellow jersey will be the South American U-20 Championship in Peru in January and February. How do you motivate yourself to play for the U-20s having already made your mark at senior level?
You have to have the same level of motivation, at the end of the day you’re talking about pulling on the Seleção shirt. So, it doesn’t matter if it’s U-15, U-17 or U-20, when you wear the national-team jersey you have to respect it and do your country proud. I’m really looking forward to playing for the U-20s.
Is the fact that the South American U-20 Championship also offers a berth at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012 an added incentive to perform well?
Of course, that’s another important factor. I remember watching the Olympics on TV until recently and so it’d be really cool to have the opportunity to help Brazil reach the Games. It’d be wonderful to have an Olympic medal on my CV.
You’ve spoken a lot about the progress you’ve made this year. Given how far you’ve come and the pressure now placed on your shoulders, do you think people sometimes forget you’re only 18?
No, I don’t think so. It’s fine. I’m managing to cope with that, I’m managing to cope with everything. Though I’m still young, I’m used to it already. Football revolves around pressure, there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s something every player has to cope with and there’s no reason I should be any different. But I manage to cope alright.
You’ve also had a goal nominated for the 2010 FIFA Puskas Award. Do you think that really was your finest strike this year?
There was another one which I got against Naviraiense but I think that, given the way the game was going, the goal against Santo Andre was the nicest I scored this year. Yes, I really think it was one of the best goals I’ve ever scored. I’m very happy to be in the running, and I’d like to take this opportunity to say thanks for being chosen.