Thanks to his outlandish hairstyles, high-prolife presence in the No11 shirt and vast repertoire of tricks and flicks, Neymar has made a name for himself right across the football world. Yet despite the glare of the spotlight, there is no question of the Brazilian entertainer being fazed by it all.
Recently named South American Footballer of the Year for the second time in a row, the Santos and Brazil striker is taking everything in his stride and keeping his feet firmly on home soil, despite attracting the much-reported attention of Europe’s biggest clubs.
A succession of titles have come his way already in his short career, among them the 2011 Copa Libertadores, and as he prepares to win yet more in the year ahead, he gave a wide-ranging interview to FIFA.com at the recent FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala.
Among the topics up for discussion were the recent changes in the national team set-up, life as a father, his take on 2012 and the contract with O Peixe, which expires next year.
FIFA.com: How do you feel about taking part in the FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala for a second time?
Neymar: I’m very proud and happy to be here. To be taking part in such a big party as this, with all the world’s best players here and to be side by side with my heroes, is something that I’m thrilled about obviously.
Does the fact that you’re South American club football’s only representative make it even more special?
It is a special feeling, yes. I think I’m doing a good job and that I’m on the right track. I’m very pleased to be achieving the goals I’ve set myself, and I hope to keep that going and be at the next galas too.
You were nominated for the second time running for the FIFA Puskás Award for the best goal of the year. Is scoring great goals another of the objectives you set yourself every year?
No, no. That’s just how it’s worked out, and it’s not like I’m out there on the pitch trying to score fantastic goals. Thanks to God I’ve managed to score some very nice ones and more than anything else they’ve been good enough to get me to the Gala.
Do you enjoy scoring goals as much as providing assists?
I enjoy both. If I can’t score, then creating a goal makes me happy too. To tell you the truth, every time I play a pass and a team-mate scores from it I get the same feeling as I would if I’d scored.
Which do you find hardest: performing on the pitch or bringing up a child?
That depends on the situation (laughs). My son is nearly 18 months old and he’s starting to give me a lot of work now too. I’d have to say it’s a little more difficult bringing up a son.
How would you describe yourself as a father?
A very happy one, and I’m grateful to God for giving me this wonderful gift. I fuss over him a lot, as you’d expect. I spend as much time with him as I can, whether I’m at a pre-match get-together, at home, or at my mother’s place. I want to be with him as much as possible.
Let’s turn to football now. What was your personal highlight of 2012?
It would have to be the Brazilian championship game against Cruzeiro (Neymar scored a hat-trick in a 4-0 win for Santos last November), when I got a round of applause from all the opposition fans. It was a very emotional moment for me. I felt very honoured, I have to say, and it made a big impact on me.
Tell us about your experience at the London Olympics, where Brazil lost to Mexico in the final.
It’s a tough one because it was a very happy time but sad too. I learned an awful lot from it. A lot of athletes go to the Olympics in search of a medal, whether it’s a bronze, silver or gold, and we came away with a silver. It’s not what we expected but for a sportsman it’s still wonderful. It was a shame to lose the final but I’m also happy to be a medal-winning athlete.
You’ll be facing Mexico at the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013. Is that a chance for revenge?
A little bit! (laughs) We’re really up for it after losing that final, though we don’t have anything against them obviously. That’s football. In every final there’s a winner and it went their way that time. I think they deserved it too.
What do you owe former Brazil coach Mano Menezes?
Mano brought me into the team. He gave me my first call-up, and I learned a lot of things with him. Every coach you work with has their own way of doing things and you learn a little from each of them. It was no different with Mano, and I learned a lot too.
How do you feel about Luiz Felipe Scolari’s arrival?
There’s a huge amount of expectation. He’s a great coach, whom I’ve played against, and he’s also a great person. I hope we can show that when we play and win all our games.
Scolari was the last Brazil coach to win the world title at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™. What memories do you have of that competition?
I remember it clearly. I was ten and I’d get up very early because it was morning in Brazil when the games were played. I cheered them on all the way and shouted my head off in the early hours. I remember all the goals, especially the ones in the final.
How important will the FIFA Confederations Cup be bearing in mind Brazil haven’t played much competitive football in the last few years?
It’s a really important tournament and we’ll be facing some top-quality teams. It’ll help us prepare for the World Cup, and we need to make the most of it by building a team with a new coach and getting used to a totally different approach. For the good of the team we need to do that as quickly as possible.
Are you ready to cope with the pressure of playing two major competitions in front of fans as demanding as Brazil’s?
The pressure is huge. It’s always there, no matter where we play, but it’ll be even bigger at home. We’re aware of that but we like it. It’s nice pressure. I’ve been fortunate enough to win finals in different tournaments and it’s fantastic to feel that pressure to succeed. We’re prepared for all of that. Brazilian players just accept it, and we’re preparing for that moment.
Do you agree with Ronaldo’s recent comment that Brazil are not among the top five sides in the world right now?
If you look at the Ranking, Brazil aren’t in the top five at the moment. But we’re working hard on the team’s identity and at becoming more of a unit. We haven’t been playing together for that long. The team’s been through a lot of changes and it needs time to forge that identity and reach the top again.
What are your objectives for 2013?
To help Santos first of all by winning titles any way how, whether it’s with goals, passes or sliding tackles. That’s what matters. And the same goes for the national team: to win titles and take it back to the top.
Will you still be at Santos after the FIFA World Cup?
Even I don’t know that. My contract runs to 2014 but there’s still a long way to go before the World Cup. I don’t know if I’ll renew it or not. It’s a personal issue and I’ll have to talk it through with my family and Santos. We’ll definitely speak about it further down the line.
Dani Alves told us he’s always telling you to sign for Barcelona.
(Laughs) Dani’s always embarrassing me! He’s put me in a tight spot.
Do you think staying in Brazil for so long will delay your development as a player?
No. You can develop and improve your game whether you’re in Brazil or not. Personally I feel I’m becoming a better player and getting more experience as every year goes by. Some people say you have to leave to develop but I don’t agree with that.
You’re only 20 so how do you handle all the success you’ve already had and being world-famous?
I know a lot of things are going on in my life and that everything’s happened too fast up to now, but I do feel prepared for what’s to come. Whenever an opportunity has come my way I’ve worked hard to make the most of it and that’s why I’m so happy. My aim now is to win more things, both with Santos and Brazil. My goal is to keep growing as a player and as a person too.