Neymar JR on why skill alone isn’t enoughYounger than Messi and Ronaldo, the Brazilian football star is set for similar world domination. Plus he’s learnt a new trick: the individualist just became a team player
When Neymar Jr. moved to FC Barcelona from Santos in Brazil in 2013, many thought the 21-year-old might struggle to develop.
He was too individualistic a player, his style was too similar to new teammate Lionel Messi’s, he was too Brazilian and therefore incompatible with European football.
Five titles with Barcelona last year and third place in the FIFA Ballon d’Or told a different story. Today, Neymar Jr., now 24, is at the top of his game.
THE RED BULLETIN: Did you have any self-doubt when you moved to Barcelona?
NEYMAR JR.: No. I’ve been hearing things like, “This lad’s much too thin, he’s too small, he’ll never make it as a footballer…” all my life. I’m used to the doubters.
So other people’s misgivings leave you cold?
It depends how you deal with them. Of course, doubts can hurt. But they can also make you tougher. They can spur you on. If someone doesn’t think you’re up to the job, you have to show them what you can do! It’s actually great motivation. This is where I am now, playing for Barcelona and rewriting history with my teammates. So let people talk. Let them say what they like. In the end, what counts is how much faith you have in your dream, that you remain persistent, and that your family is behind you, giving you strength.
But there was something objective in the doubts about the move: you and Messi do play a similar style of football. That meant you’d have to work harder to find your place in the team, which would mean dispensing with the creativity, the claim to leadership, the playful strokes of genius – in other words, everything that’s always marked you out…
But I wanted that challenge and I knew what I was letting myself in for. I wanted to play for Barcelona alongside Iniesta and my idol, Messi, who was my inspiration back then and remains one to this day. Of course it’s not easy to assert yourself [in that situation], but for me that was the attraction.
Other than being pretty good at football, what does a player have to do to gain acceptance as the new guy at Barcelona?
You’re right that being good at football isn’t enough on its own; you also need character. And that’s not just because Barcelona is one of the best teams in the world. It’s about the type of football that’s played here. It’s a style that brings the game to life. And it calls for personalities on the pitch. Once you’ve got to grips with that, the rest is easy.
You say that, but every new arrival at the club means fresh competition for the established players. After all, no one is going to say, “Welcome… please take my place on the team.”
You might not believe me, but my settling-in period was wonderful. All these great players with so many championship titles and accolades to their names gave me a really fabulous welcome. There was no rivalry. Quite the opposite, in fact.
I remember the first training session I took part in at Barcelona. Suddenly, Messi was playing next to me, and Xavi, Iniesta, Valdés, Piqué… I felt like I was in a computer game. I just thought to myself, “Wow, I’m really playing in the same team as all these guys!” Of course it takes getting used to at first, but it was relaxed. Dani Alves, who’s a fellow Brazilian, particularly helped me. And Messi was great; he gave me support. You could really see that he wanted to take the pressure off me. He wanted to give me a chance to focus solely on the game.
Barcelona are now seen as a better team than they were in 2013. How much of that is down to you?
As much or as little as it’s down to everyone else on the team. This isn’t tennis, where failure or success depends on a single person; here, what matters is football. That means the 11 players on the pitch, plus the reserves and all the players in the squad, and the physios. Whatever success we have in football is to everyone’s credit. Anyone who doesn’t get that would be better off playing tennis.
What have you learnt while at Barcelona for the last three years? Many have said you’ve matured a lot…
I’ve learnt an incredible amount. I’ve become a better footballer in every sense, be that tactically or in my ball control or my shooting technique. And I’ve become
a better father, son and friend. I’ll leave it to other people to say whether I’ve matured or not. But I’ll tell you one thing: the challenge of being at Barcelona has definitely made me a happier person.
You must have feared the move to Europe could impose restrictions on you, that you might lose the creativity and ingenuity that define you on the pitch. How have you retained those qualities while also being a team player?
It’s not a case of either/or. It’s both at the same time.
But you were a completely different player in Brazil, playing a dissimilar role with a contrasting set of freedoms. Up until the age of 21, you’d done whatever occurred naturally to you on the pitch without having to take others into consideration. And then all of a sudden you had to start playing as part of a team. Doesn’t that mean you have had to completely reappraise what football is?
No. You’re looking at it the wrong way. I’ve never changed my individual quirks; I’ve just incorporated what’s required at Barcelona into my style of play. So it’s not a question of me having lost any of my skills – if anything, I’ve gained some new ones. It would have also been completely wrong to question everything that had gone before in terms of my style. After all, Barcelona wanted me in the team because of the player I was. I think life is always better when you don’t question the things that you can do, but learn new things instead.
- Born: 5 February 1992 (age 24)
- Home Town: Mogi das Cruzes (São Paulo)
- First Club: Santos
- Brazilian Debut:10 August 2010
- Estimated Transfer Value: 100 million Euros (source: Transfermarkt)
- Goals Scored (June 2016): Santos (54), Barcelona (55), Brazil (46)
When you were playing in the Brazilian league, your tricks often surprised your own teammates as much as they did your opponents. In Europe, you have to be predictable to your teammates while remaining unpredictable to your opponents. Is that difficult?
Yes, that’s a good point. It is difficult. Really difficult. Football is about improvisation. You can’t plan it, because so many things can influence play. Ultimately, in football, it’s the quality of this improvisation that decides who wins and who loses. But when it comes to the bigger teams, it’s no longer about the ability of individual players to improvise; it’s about the ability of the whole team to improvise as a unit.
At Barcelona, you play as a forward, but you’re particularly skilled at setting up goals for your teammates. Wouldn’t you rather be celebrating scoring yourself, though?
I won’t say that I don’t like scoring goals myself. But have you ever set up a goal for a friend in a game? It’s a totally different kind of joy.
Must all teammates be friends in order to win?
It’s not strictly necessary for the whole team to be the best of friends to achieve success on the pitch. But teams that do manage to be friendly lose less easily. It’s hard to beat a team made up of friends. At Barcelona, we understand that and we’ve made it happen.
So we should all go out and have fun with our colleagues more often?
Definitely. But not just for the sake of success. Making new friends is one of the best things that there is in the world. Living alone is terrible. It’s no good just thinking about yourself. If you want to have a happy life, then reach out to people. The more people you know, the more people you’re close to and the more friends you have, the better.