"In Brazil, if you have a ball, you are already happy. If you are happy, then everything will be alright." It seems a remarkably simple philosophy for such a famous player, but one that perfectly encapsulates the FC Barcelona forward's joy in – and affection for – the beautiful game.
Neymar arrived in Spain with expectations sky high on both sides of the Atlantic. For fans in Brazil, his departure to Europe was the ultimate test to see whether the hype that has surrounded the 21-year-old since his rise from the Santos FC academy was justified. He joined a Barcelona squad celebrating their 22nd Liga title but smarting from defeat by FC Bayern München in last season's UEFA Champions League semi-finals. Some supporters suggested the team needed to worry about stopping goals, not scoring them. Others wondered how the gifted wide man would adapt to his new club's tiki-taka playing style.
Flourishing on the left of a three-man attack, Neymar has so far made the switch look effortless. He has started every one of Barça's first five UEFA Champions League matches, helping them into the round of 16 regardless of next Wednesday's result at home to Celtic FC, and has had a telling effect in the Liga: his eight assists and four goals have helped the Blaugrana top the table in one of their best-ever openings to a campaign. And he endeared himself to fans by scoring the first and making the second in a 2-1 win against Real Madrid CF in October.
Such form has vindicated the player's decision to join Barcelona. "It was the right moment to leave Brazil," he says, adding that the move was made in close consultation with his father. "I have chosen a marvellous club to play for – they have welcomed me with open arms."
His transition to life in Catalonia has been eased by the support of his family and club and national team-mate Daniel Alves: "You must have a good friend alongside you to help you with the things you need. I have Dani, who is really important in helping me adapt, both at the club and outside it. He's someone who has helped me quite a lot, and my family too. My family continue to be as they always have been – they're helping me."
At first, he admitted to having chills when noticing the presence of his accomplished colleagues in the dressing room. "Sometimes it feels like a dream. I look to one side and see [Lionel] Messi. To the other, Xavi [Hernández]," he told a media conference in August, before adding: "I am incredibly excited and honoured but there's no fear."
His satisfaction with life away from the pitch has, he says now, helped him adjust to the pressure of expectation on it. "I'm adapting well. I'm working as much as possible for the team," he says. "Clearly the start is hard when you arrive; you have to play a bit slower, but bit by bit, I'm getting there. There are differences, both on and off the pitch. Here, you learn how to live and be a good professional."
A full version of this interview appears in the new edition of Champions Matchday. The official magazine of the UEFA Champions League is on sale across Europe and also comes in digital versions which can be purchased on Apple Newsstand or Zinio. You can also follow the magazine via Twitter @ChampionsMag.
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