World’s best dribbler Neymar on why thinks Argentina, France and Germany are Brazil’s main rivals

World’s best dribbler Neymar on why thinks Argentina, France and Germany are Brazil’s main rivals


With just three 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 Jnr.

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 huge, indeed almost overwhelming. It feels now or never for Neymar, with Brazil’s coach Tite not shying away from what he expects and what represents success. Brazil are in it to win it and after qualifying last June, he boldly declared: “We reached the World Cup – now it’s time to be champions.”

To do that they need Neymar to be at his best as he has been this season. With 75 goals in 121 appearances, he is just two behind Pele’s record as Brazil’s all-time goal-scorer 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 in an exclusive interview with The Telegraph. “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. In our exclusive interview Neymar reveals more as he discusses: Who he believes are Brazil’s main rivals to win the tournament; which England players he rates the highest (including one who is not even in Gareth Southgate’s squad); what it is like to wear Brazil’s immortal number 10 shirt; and the advice he would give to the young Neymar starting out at his first club, Santos (where Pele also began).

The first place to start, though, is inside the dressing room of the Parc des Princes in Paris. It is five years since Neymar became the world’s most expensive player when PSG paid close to £200 million 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 in football.

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 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 35-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, with the tournament so close, 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.

“Kylian is a young player who’s been growing and showing his potential and still has a lot to grow. It’s always great to play alongside the greats. I’ve always preferred that because the chances of winning are higher.”

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 and helped mould them into the superstars they are, as they dominate the game that captivates the world.

There is that added dimension that it might not be just a rejuvenated, fully-fit Messi’s last chance of winning it, now he is 35, but Neymar’s also. 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 when they faced Germany.

Four years later in Russia Neymar again played well, but was thwarted from scoring an injury-time equaliser by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, as Belgium shocked Brazil 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 ones I played in are special for me, one of them because Brazil hosted and the other one because it was my second World Cup. And I believe this one will also be very special,” Neymar says.

  • A Telegraph report
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