Though just 22, Neymar is carrying the expectations of an entire nation on his shoulders, with many experts tipping him to lead Brazil to success at this year’s FIFA World Cup™ on home soil.
Neymar returned to the Barcelona line-up in style on the weekend following an ankle injury, scoring a spectacular goal in the process.
In Zurich last month where he was attending the FIFA Ballon d’Or as a nominee for the FIFA Puskás Award, the former Santos starlet made time for an exclusive chat with FIFA.com.
Among other topics, Neymar spoke about life with new club Barcelona, his relationship with Lionel Messi and the strengths of the Brazilian national team. “I will be a World Cup winner,” he told us.
FIFA.com: You’ve been at Barça a little over six months now. Would you say you’re a different player to the one who left Santos?
Neymar: No, I’m still the same, though obviously more experienced having been in new surroundings, in another city and a new country. You learn new things, a new culture, and that’s very good.
Are you already speaking Spanish?
A little (replies in Spanish). It’s quite similar to Portuguese, though a bit harder.
Has it surprised you how quickly you’ve adapted to your new club?
I wouldn’t say it’s surprised me. Thank God I’ve had a lot of good fortune, mainly to have found such a great group of people here, along with players who have made me very welcome. All of Barcelona, in fact. We’re talking about players who have won practically everything there is to win yet remain as humble as ever. That’s the main reason why everything is working out well.
What do you miss about Brazil?
I miss my home there and always miss my family and friends. But as I said, I’m very happy to be discovering new things. Right now I’m living my boyhood dream, which was to play for a European club. The fact that it’s a huge club like Barcelona makes it a tremendous honour. I like everything about the city: the climate, the people. It’s quite similar to Brazil, which helps a lot. There’s even a beach!
Are the fans similar to those of Santos. Can you walk down the street without a problem, for example.
They’re very passionate too – fanatics, just like at Santos. And yes, I can walk down the street without worrying. Some people recognise me but that’s normal.
I believe we [Brazil] have an excellent chance of reaching the Final and becoming champions.
When you played in the final of last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup [against Spain], your planned move to Barcelona was already official. What was it like facing some of your soon-to-be team-mates and did you feel somewhat scrutinised?
(Laughs) Yes it was unusual to play a final against future team-mates. Now we sometimes talk about that game and other things. It was a huge thrill to win the Confederations Cup.
Do you mind telling us what’s said when that game is discussed?
We joke about it, but they’re jokes that stay among ourselves.
Do you think they’ll be out for revenge in June? Your paths could cross in the Round of 16…
No, I don’t think revenge. Every team going to Brazil 2014 will be there to win, and it’s going to be a fiercely contested World Cup. All the teams are preparing very well, but I believe we have an excellent chance of reaching the Final and becoming champions. That’s what we’re working towards, and all that training is aimed at realising that dream.
Going back to that final against Spain, was the atmosphere inside the Maracana and the way everyone sung the national anthem a significant factor, and what did it feel like on the pitch?
That was a fantastic moment, and I’m certain there will be a lot more moments like that during the World Cup. It will be even more emotional than during the Confederations Cup.
We’re delighted about it and happy that other people will be able to come here and discover our culture and country. I know Brazil will welcome everyone.
How has A Seleção changed since Luiz Felipe Scolari’s arrival?
I don’t know that it has changed. I think the team created its own identity. We needed time to train and get to know each other better, time for our game to flow. We had that at the Confederations Cup and everything worked out well. The way the group bonded, both on and off the pitch, was fantastic, and that just motivated us even more to run and work for each other. It helped us win that title.
What would say are Felipão’s main strengths as a coach?
As a coach he’s a normal, unassuming guy, just like one of us. He can crack a joke but he can be tough when he has to be. He’s a hard-working man who always likes to win, and a great person. Those are his main virtues and the reason he’s won over the squad.
Can you believe that in less than four months you’ll be preparing to play at the World Cup?
It seems a long way off, but in reality it isn’t. The World Cup’s almost upon us. What's more, it’s in our homeland, which is a huge source of pride. I’m nervous about it, but hopefully I can handle that anxiety. It’s going to be a great World Cup, especially for us, I hope.
What does it mean to be able to play your first World Cup on home soil?
It’s a unique opportunity – we know that only too well. We’re delighted about it and happy that other people will be able to come here and discover our culture and country. I know Brazil will welcome everyone.
Did you watch the Final Draw?
Yes, I saw it while on club duty with Barcelona. We’ve been given a tough group with some great teams, but we hope to have the best possible tournament. Who do I see as our main rivals? Well, nowadays there’s very little to choose between teams, so you need to take care no matter who you play. All the competing teams are strong so you need to prepare for that to avoid any surprises.
You’ve always spoken in glowing terms about Lionel Messi, but come the World Cup, he’ll be a direct rival chasing the same goal.
(Laughs) Indeed, I’ve even spoken to him about a possible Final between Brazil and Argentina, obviously with Brazil winning. I was always a big fan of his, and am even more so now that I know him. I have the good fortune to work with him every day and I wish him well in everything.
Have you been surprised by him now that you’re team-mates?
He’s surprised me a lot, even as a player. I never realised he was so great when I was just watching him on TV.
Your country’s fans have placed great store in you for the World Cup. What would you like to say to them ahead of big event?
To rest assured they can count on 23 warriors who will be fighting for the national team in our bid to realise everyone’s dream, not just that of the players. Hopefully they’ll drive us on till the end, and we’ll be giving our all for them too.
Lastly, we’d like you to finish this sentence for us? ‘In 2014, Neymar will be…’
(Thinks for a bit, then laughs) …a World Cup winner!