Neymar, Brazil’s latest football sensation, sat with TIME Editor-at-Large Bobby Ghosh to discuss his career, his life — and why he continues to resist the temptation to move to a big-name club in Europe.
Every day, it seems like one famous Brazilian player or another has an opinion about whether you should stay in Brazil or go to Europe. One day it’s Deco, another day is Ronaldo. How much does that influence your own thinking?
I always make my decisions together with my family, my father. Of course, I hear the advice of everyone who wishes me well, but the final decision is always mine, with my family. I’m very happy that major players are always giving their opinions about my life, my game. I am very thankful for that.
You have stayed in Brazil much longer than a player of your quality is normally expected to stay. Do you feel that you have made some sacrifices, that you have missed out on some things in order to stay with your family in Brazil?
No, no. I don’t think so. I like to be in Brazil, this is what I wish. I always do as my heart tells me. For me, the right time has not come for me to leave Brazil. I am very happy at Santos. I am very happy in Brazil. I’m with my family, my friends. I am very happy.
And what would you define as the “right time”? What are you waiting for?
I have a contract with Santos until 2014. I intend to honor it. [After that,] it depends on my will, how I feel in my heart, whether I want to leave Brazil or not. I can continue to work with Santos. You always knows what’s best for you. It’s like choosing an ice-cream flavor. Sometimes you choose vanilla, sometimes chocolate. My wish today, my flavor today, for me, is to stay with Santos.
Do you feel that it has in any way compromised your development as a player? Would you have developed faster or slower if you had gone to Europe?
Whether or not a player goes abroad, he develops in the same way. Some develop slower, some faster, but that depends on the player and everybody grows personally and professionally. I have no regrets about my decision. I am very happy at Santos, like I said. In my opinion I’ve made the right choice.
One of the interesting things about the Brazilian league in the last few years is how many players are coming back from Europe while they still have some time left toplay, like Ronaldinho, Zé Roberto, Juninho Pernambucano, several players have come back. I know that there’s not such a player in Santos but the return of these players, does that help to raise the standard of the league and therefore does that help you develop faster as a player?
It’s good for Brazilian football to have idols, stars, big stars coming back to Brazilian clubs. The tournaments become much better, more interesting. Zé Roberto, Juninho Pernambucano, Ronaldinho Gaucho, and other players who have returned to Brazil strengthen the league and improve the tournaments.
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Does that make you a better player?
Of course, it’s always helpful to see a star player up close, whether you are in the same team or not. Not only for me personally but for every player, the tournament becomes more difficult, and therefore muchmore fun.
When you face, say, Zé Roberto, do you sense it’s harder to get past him because he has all this experience?
It depends. It’s not that he has more experience that it makes it more difficult to go past him. Of course it’s easier to play when you have more experience, when you know your way around the field. Football is like that: when you’re on the field everyone’s the same.
Now, you’re a year-and-a-half away from the World Cup. I don’t have to tell you, it’s going to be the biggest thing for all of your countrymen. And, in many significant ways, it’s going to be your World Cup. You will be the player everyone has all these expectations of. Does that change the way you prepare, the way you train?
No, I always get ready for the next game. I’m not thinking that far ahead into the future. I’m training for the next game, to be in the best shape possible to be on the field for the next game.
You are aware of the enormous pressures that your countrymen expect from you.
I don’t think there’s pressure on me. But this Cup is happening at home, so the pressure on the [Brazilian national team] is doubled. Given all the accomplishments of the national team in the history of football, it is always favored to win in any competition. Now, the next World Cup will be at home and we are aware of the pressure… But we must ignore the pressure and play football like we always do.
For those of us who are not in your situation, it’s hard to understand how you can put the pressure away from your mind.
Well, I don’t know how it is for you but, for me, I’m at ease. I am aware of the pressures but I’m doing what I love to do, so there’s no reason for me to feel pressured at all. I turn this pressure into happiness, joy, and try to do my job well.
In terms of your development as a player, what are the things that you feel that you are able to do now on the field that you weren’t able to do two years ago?
That’s a difficult question. In comparison to my first game, nowadays I have a lot more self-confidence and I’ve grown in many other respects. It’s difficult to explain.
In some sports, including football, veterans say that, as they grow older, they are able to see the game better around them. Everything seems to slow down. Do you feel that way?
I’m only twenty: I’m not that old! But I think it’s true. I do believe that, as I gain more experience, my vision of the game broadens.
Let’s talk a little bit about Brazil. The fact that Neymar stays in Brazil rather than goes to Europe, the fact that Ronaldinho Gaucho comes back to Brazil instead of going to Turkey, or Qatar, or Japan, in some ways this tell us about Brazil’s success as a country, as an economy, as a league where players can make a decent living. Are we reading too much into it or do you agree?
I’m not referring to the fact that I stayed in Brazil but it’s important to have these stars back to Brazilian football fields. You mentioned Ronaldinho, Zé Roberto, and all the players that are returning, not only do they help our league but also our country, to see our stars coming back.
Fifteen years ago, when the Brazilian league was much poorer than it is today, when Brazil as a country was not as well off as today, your thinking might have been different. After all, you have a responsibility to earn money for you family and your future. Would you say that your decision [to remain at Santos] is made possible by the fact that you can now make a very good living while you’re still in Brazil?
No, I think that my decision would have been the same 15. I didn’t stay because of money. I stayed because I wanted to stay, because I was happy, close to my family, my son, my friends. Those were the reasons for my decision. It was my desire to stay, it was not about money.
Tell me a little more about Neymar the family man. We see the player, we read about you as a player, as a team man, as a star. Tell me a little more about the family man, as a father, as a son…
I’m a happy guy. I like to joke around. I’m irreverent. I love my family, I love my son. I was very happy with and proud of the birth of my son. I grew up a lot after he was born. I’m just an easy and happy guy. I love my profession. If you want me to talk about me as a person, that’s who I am.
You are the source of a lot of pride for Brazilians, you and the whole team. Tell me a little bit, if you can, about what you are proud of about Brazil, not just football but Brazil in general.
There are so many! Football is the Number One reason, of course. Our cities are wonderful, I am so proud of all these aspects about Brazil, everything about Brazil.
Is it important to you that Brazil, quite apart from football, is now seen as an important economic power in the world?
Yes, of course, that’s very important! It’s a source of pride for me. It helps our country and it helps everybody.
Twenty years ago, Brazil’s most famous export was football players. Now there’s oil, there are aircraft… Are you aware of all these other changes around you or are you completely focused on football and those things don’t matter?
Well, I’m not completely focused on football: I read the news. But football is my profession and I pay more attention [to it].
Outside of football, who are your heroes, who are the people you admire? And you’re not allowed to say your father! [Neymar Sr. is in the room.]
How about my mother? [Laughs.]
Nobody in the family. Other Brazilians.
Can it be in soccer or outside of football?
Outside of football.
Well, outside of football, I could mention some athletes, like [ultimate fighter] Anderson Silva, Guga [tennis player Gustavo Kuerten], and [the late F-1 driver Ayrton] Senna, though I never saw or met him. And Pele. These are all great idols of whom we are very proud.
To carry the title of the next Pelé is a huge burden, especially when Pelé himself seems to bless that idea.
Well, this is a source of great pride, it’s an honor for me, but Pelé is unique. I can’t be compared to Pelé. I need to do so much more to be compared to Pelé. Pelé is fantastic. And he’s unique.
Of the players that you see now, whether in the league or elsewhere in the world, who are the people you pay close attention to in order to see if you can learn something from?
I pay close attention to the players in Brazil, [like] Ronaldinho. And my friends who play in Europe, and Messi, among other players, such as Kaká, Oscar… These are the players that I try to look at.
You’ve played against Messi a couple of times, with Santos and the national team. On the field, do you pay close attention to him?
I have great admiration for him, of course. He’s an idol, but, when I’m on the field, I always put that aside because I have to do my own job in the game and try to beat him.
What have you learned from him?
Messi is another unique player. There’s only one Messi. I think it’s fantastic how he can make decisions. How he is able to be decisive, to change a game, to make the difference in a game.
For somebody who has made so much money at a fairly young age, and who’s got millions of fans, you are very well behaved. There are people in your profession who are not so well behaved. Is this just your natural personality or do you feel a sense of responsibility that you have to behave well because you are an example to young people?
I disagree with you a little bit. I’ve given my father enough trouble. [Neymar Sr. interjects: “That’s true!”]
But my personality and how I was raised… Of course we all have our own personalities but it’s important how our parents raise us. I’ve always had the greatest respect for and listened to both my father and my mother. I’ve always tried to follow my parents’ advice because these are people who want the best for me.
[At the end of the interview, Neymar poses for photographer Alessio Romenzi.]
I asked the same question to Messi: What do you like less, being interviewed or having your picture taken?
I’m not very handsome.