Real Madrid seduced him to Spain and laid on the VIP treatment; he got to meet David Beckham, Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane and watched matches in Florentino Perez’s executive box during a three-week stay. Santos unleashed a counter-punch KO by offering a $470,000 signing-on fee – a mind-blowing figure for someone in his early teens – and a fat salary for him to join their youth system.
Pele, Romario and Robinho all predicted Neymar would become one of the world’s top players and, for around a decade, he has been. But as he turns 28 today, is the Mogi das Cruzes native in the form of his life?
His figures since December’s start suggest so: 20 combined goals and assists in 11 appearances – ten of which were victories, the other a draw – while one could make a 90-minute highlight reel of his indecipherable tricks.
FIFA.com caught up with Neymar to discuss Paris Saint-Germain’s UEFA Champions League chances, Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi and, of course, Brazil as their bid to land at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ approaches lift-off.
FIFA.com: Neymar, you got injured on the eve of the Copa America. Rather than enjoy some rare holidays, you chose to passionately support the team at every game. Can you tell us about this decision?
Neymar: It was really difficult to be out of the Copa America because of everything I went through. I did my recuperation in Brazil and seized the opportunity to follow my team-mates. I put being a player aside and became a supporter like millions of other Brazilians. It was incredible and reminded me of my childhood days when I went to the stadium with my dad.
Brazil have lost just twice in 22 games since Russia 2018. With the qualifiers for Qatar 2022 about to start, what do you think of the current Seleção?
We are very strong. The squad is more experienced, even though we have some youngsters. We have players who have been at two World Cups, like me for example. We’ve won, we’ve lost, we’ve had many positive and negative experiences, and we can help the youngsters with our experience. Moreover, the coaching staff, unlike in previous years, has remained the same. This continuity will facilitate our work and enhance our chances [at Qatar 2022]. I’m very optimistic about the Seleção’s future.
Arthur, Cebolinha, Richarlison, David Neres, Paqueta, Gabigol, Vinícius Junior, Rodrygo, Reinier… what do you think of Brazil’s emerging youngsters?
Every one of them is very talented. And you can expect that, by 2022, others will have emerged. Brazil has an impressive ability to unearth talents.
Which other countries do you feel will be Brazil’s biggest rivals at Qatar 2022?
France, Belgium, England and Argentina.