Whichever way you look at it, Neymar da Silva Santos Junior’s ascent to footballing stardom has been one of dizzying proportions. Not only is the Santos sensation fulfilling the potential he showed as an up-and-coming teenager, a task beyond many a gifted prospect, he has already kicked on to become a genuine phenomenon of world football.
Widely admired for his breathtaking performances for club and country, the 19-year-old has also attracted an ever-increasing army of loyal fans. Pursued by posses of photographers wherever he goes, from Santos to London and New York, Neymar has become as much of a hero to the boys who copy his distinctive hairstyle as the girls who scream his name.
A child not so very long ago, the smiling star can barely remember the last time he popped out for ice-cream without being stopped by well-wishers along the way. The price of success, some might say, but the question is: is it one Brazil’s latest footballing icon is willing to pay?
“It’s the life I’ve chosen,” said the prodigy himself, in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “And I didn’t just choose it - I begged God for it. All I’ve ever wanted was to play football, have a successful career, do my bit and earn recognition along the way. I’ve got everything I ever wanted, and it would be crazy of me to complain about anything now.
“I can’t sit there thinking that I can’t pop out to get an ice-cream,” he continued. “I just go out and live my life, and that means signing autographs, posing for photo after photo and taking abuse from people, because that’s part of it too. At the end of the day though, I’m just a human being, not an idol.”
Though he has learned to live with fame and expectation from a young age and has grown accustomed to life in the media spotlight, the fact remains that Neymar is still just a teenager, a shy young man as yet unaware of the significance of what he has achieved.
“To be honest it hasn’t really sunk in yet,” he explained, almost apologetically. “It’s still very new to me, having all these people chanting my name and asking me just to say ‘Hi” or flash them a smile. I’m getting used to it, though. I’ve been a fan myself, and I’ve stood there frozen with fear whenever players came by. Now it’s me on the other side and I’ve got a lot of respect for the fans.”
Adapting to changeAdored by his fans, known in Brazil as Neymarzetes, the Santos man has proved a good deal less popular with the country’s centre-halves and full-backs, who have been doing whatever they can to stop the fleet-footed ace.
“It can get on your nerves a bit,” he said in response to the rough treatment he sometimes gets on the pitch. “You beat one man and you get brought down. You beat another and you get brought down again. And what makes it even harder is that there’s more man-to-man marking here.”
His rapid promotion to the national team has given him exposure to defenders from other parts of the world, an education for which he is grateful: “Coming up against other players based in Europe has helped me a lot. The marking’s still tight but it’s different, more zonal.”
Messi’s a guy who’s already made history and will achieve a lot more yet. I’m just starting out and I’ve a lot to do to get to his level.
Having recently signed a contract extension that will keep him at Santos until 2014, Neymar has opted to continue honing his skills against Brazilian defences, although the upcoming FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2011, arguably the biggest test he has faced to date, will provide him with more valuable international exposure.
O Peixe’s opening game at the tournament will be a semi-final against Auckland City, Monterrey or the Japanese champions. Their reward for winning that game will be a potential final against a side that Neymar has no shortage of admiration for.
“Who doesn’t admire Barcelona?” asked the 2011 Copa Libertadores winner. “They sowed the seeds a long time back and now they’re reaping the reward. They deserve all the praise they get for the joy they’ve given to the fans and to all the people who like to see good football, which includes me.”
Future goalsThat potential decider in Yokohama could produce a tantalising duel between Neymar and Lionel Messi, a player who the Brazilian marvelled at on TV not so long ago but who now features alongside him on the 23-man shortlist for the FIFA Ballon d’Or.
The only South America-based player to appear on that list, Neymar has nothing but praise for the Argentinian entertainer, referring to him in the same glowing terms as a fan would: “I’ve always said that I still have a lot to learn. Messi’s a guy who’s already made history and will achieve a lot more yet. I’m just starting out and I’ve a lot to do to get to his level.”
A key component of the Santos team that will take on the world in Japan, the tyro also has important objectives ahead with A Seleção, the biggest of those being the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Though his feet are on the ground, the 19-year-old recognises the need to keep on chalking up landmarks and is ready to shoulder his responsibilities for club and country.
“I’m working to stay on top of my game and perform for my country,” he said before targeting the biggest prize of all. “I want to make history with Brazil in 2014 and make my name in world football.”
Given the goals he has already achieved in his meteoric ascension, few would bet against Neymar making those objectives a reality.