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‘We joke about crossing paths in the final. I tell Messi that I’ll be World champion and win against him’ – Neymar

Brazil's Neymar Jr and Dani Alves during the Brazil training session at Juventus' training centre. Photo: Stefano Guidi/Getty Images© Getty Images

Jason BurtTelegraph.co.uk

With just days to go until the World Cup begins there is an increasing expectation that much of what happens will revolve around how Brazil, led by their flamboyant ringmaster, their number 10, perform.

That shirt is the most iconic in football, and those who wear it carry the weight of the sport’s most successful and eager nation on their shoulders. For the third successive World Cup, that burden falls on Neymar da Silva Santos – more commonly known as Neymar Jr. The Paris St Germain superstar will be 31 in February, and this could well be his last chance. The expectation, as in 2014 and 2018, is almost overwhelming

With 75 goals in 121 appearances he is just two behind Pele’s record as Brazil’s all-time goalscorer and will clearly expect to beat that total in Qatar (he has already jokingly bet that he will score at least five times). It is a pressure he welcomes. “The World Cup is my greatest dream,” Neymar concedes. “It has been since I understood what football was. Now I’m getting another chance, so I hope to make it.”

There are 214 million Brazilians, and many more fans around the world, who hope he succeeds in ending a painful wait of 20 years without winning the World Cup.

​It is five years since Neymar became the world’s most expensive player when PSG paid close to £200m to sign him, with the club then only weeks later bringing in Kylian Mbappe and, last year, Lionel Messi. Ever since, there has been endless and often wild speculation as to whether this version of Hollywood FC can ever accommodate three of the biggest stars.

After all, did Neymar not leave Barcelona so he could emerge from Messi’s shadow and win the Ballon D’Or, only for both players to again find themselves at the same club? Were they then not usurped by the young, headstrong prince Mbappe who needed the French president Emmanuel Macron to persuade him to stay earlier this year and – allegedly – received the power to hire and fire to force him to sign his new deal, only to decide he had made a mistake and wanted out after all?

The dynamic is all the more fascinating as we head towards the World Cup. Neymar’s wildly talented, evocative Brazil are the favourites, Messi’s Argentina, constructed around him, are on a remarkable 36-match unbeaten run, and Mbappe’s France are the holders of the fabled trophy.

In fact, it would be a surprise if the winner in the Lusail Stadium in Doha on December 18 did not come from one of the three nations, with one of those three players the spearhead. So have they allowed themselves to talk about what they expect, and who among them might win it?

“Everyone obviously has high hopes for the World Cup and feels not anxious but excited. Everybody wants to be at the World Cup,” Neymar says.

“We don’t discuss it very much but sometimes we joke about crossing paths with each other in the final. I tell him (Messi) that I’ll be champion and win against him, and we have a good laugh. Playing with him and Kylian is a huge pleasure. They’re two greats, with Messi long considered the best in the world.”

It conjures up quite the image – Neymar, Messi and Mbappe – light-heartedly debating who will win the competition that fuelled their imaginations as young boys.

World Cups have been tough on him. In 2014, the pressure was almost overwhelming in Brazil – and yet he carried his country, until he suffered a terrible fracture to his back in the quarter-final against Colombia after a cynical challenge. It almost led to national mourning, with Neymar later revealing that if the damage had been two centimetres to the side his career would have been over. Brazil won that tie but then, without their talisman, lost so traumatically 7-1 in the semi-final against Germany.

Four years later in Russia Neymar again played well, but Brazil were shocked by Belgium in the quarter-finals. Neymar was ridiculed by memes of his play-acting as he appeared to roll around searching for fouls before hitting back, saying it was part of a smear campaign to “undermine” him. Once again, he has a point to prove.

“The World Cup is full of surprises,” he adds cautiously. “You get teams that unexpectedly get very far, even if many don’t believe in them. But I believe the favourites are Argentina, Germany, Spain and France. I think those four, along with Brazil, are fully capable of reaching the final.”

​Getting an interview with a truly global superstar such as Neymar is a rare thing – and amid all the focus on football one fairly blunt question is obvious: just what is it like being him?

Beneath the baseball cap it elicits a knowing smile. “I’m a normal person, despite all the pressure – being known around the world, wearing the number 10 and anything else my name entails,” Neymar says. “I try to be as down-to-earth as possible in order to be normal.

“I have friends and family just like everybody else. I’m a human being with feelings. Sometimes I wake up sad, other times very happy. My moods are as random as the next person’s. But I don’t feel too much pressure and I use that as strength. I’m very proud of who I’ve become as a person and a player.”

​Has it become easier, though, as he has grown older? “Certainly,” Neymar says. “Because you learn with everything you experience in life, from your mistakes along the way. No one’s born perfect and no one becomes perfect, but you grow as life throws obstacles in your way. So it’s much easier to deal with this as the person I am today, compared to when I was 22 or 23.”

Despite the apparent modesty ‘being Neymar’ is inevitably a global industry in its own right; just as it is with Messi, Mbappe, Cristiano Ronaldo and that extremely small handful of stars who transcend sport, culture and – controversially in Neymar’s case – politics also.

Remarkably, for example, his company, the one overseen by his father, Neymar Senior, is called NR Sports and has no fewer than 215 employees all dedicated to protecting, promoting and maximising his image.

Neymar was once named the most marketable athlete in the world and became the first Brazilian sportsman to be on the cover of ‘Time’ magazine. He has 181 million followers on Instagram. It is a phenomenal industry built around one single asset: Neymar.

As he talks via this Microsoft Teams call from Paris and through a Portuguese translator, there is a picture on Neymar’s wall that depicts him as half Batman/ half The Joker – and it appears to sum up the stark conflicts within his personality, where he sees himself as both a superhero but also one with a devilish, villain-like edge that, on occasions, has taken over both on and off the pitch. He is hero-worshipped and hated.

That conflict is evident in Neymar’s championing of his humble roots, his awareness of where he has come from, with his father giving up his own failing football career and working three jobs to make ends meet, and yet there is the public support for the distasteful far-right President Jair Bolsonaro who lost the recent Brazilian elections.

Little wonder the authorised three-part documentary series on Netflix is entitled ‘Neymar Jr: The Perfect Chaos’– it takes that title from a phrase used to describe his life by his friend and team-mate Dani Alves, who is in the squad for Qatar despite being 39.

Would his career, however, be incomplete if it ended with Neymar not winning the World Cup?

“No, in my career I’ve achieved things beyond my imagination. So, if it ended today, I would still be the happiest person in the world,” he says, and while – clearly – that is accurate given the trophies he has won, the wealth and fame he has accrued, it would surely appear imperfect not to win Brazil’s first World Cup for two decades?

​And it is that tournament that forms his earliest memories. “2002, which I watched with my dad and family when Brazil won. I was buzzing,” Neymar says. “That’s my first memory from the World Cup, and properly following it.

“The 1994 World Cup I only watched videos after the fact but I still enjoyed some moments from Romario, who I liked a lot . . . I have many idols, many references for me. Pele, obviously, Ronaldo, Romario, Kaka, Ronaldinho Gaucho. Those are my favourites.”

Now as the current talisman, how does Neymar view donning that precious yellow jersey and the history within its fabric?

“It’s very relaxed,” he says emphatically, smiling. “I don’t feel under pressure, quite the opposite. I’m happy to be able to wear the number 10 on the Brazilian team and make history. It’s a great pride and honour to be part of the group of players that wore it, and I only feel happiness about it.”

It is quite a journey from a man who has lived his life unrelentingly in the spotlight since emerging at Santos as a 17-year-old. So what advice would Neymar now give to himself as that callow, willowy teenager with the preening mohawk haircut? “I would tell him to relax because it will all work out,” he says. “It’ll be hard and there will be times where you’ll suffer, but in the end we made it.”


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