Fuelled by past disappointments at the World Cup, Neymar has been preparing for a long time to make sure he is in peak condition to lead Brazil into this year’s tournament in Qatar.
Now aged 30, the world’s most expensive player has often struggled to live up to expectations and been hampered by injuries since joining Paris Saint-Germain from Barcelona in 2017 for a record 222 million euros.
It is not so long ago that Neymar let slip that Qatar could be his last World Cup as he struggled with the demands of playing football at the highest level.
But his form and his attitude in the first three months of this season bode well going into Brazil’s bid to win a record sixth World Cup crown.
After reporting for pre-season training a week earlier than expected, Neymar hit the ground running when the French campaign kicked off and he has scored 15 goals in 19 games so far for PSG, while also providing a hatful of assists for the likes of Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe.
“He is flying. It is the fruit of all the preparation he has put in,” said national team coach Tite recently of Brazil’s superstar forward.
– Ready to equal Pele? –
Close-season talk that PSG were keen to cut their losses and sell Neymar has faded, and he heads to Qatar needing just two goals to draw level with Pele on 77 as Brazil’s all-time top goal-scorer.
Eight of Neymar’s 75 goals for his country came during Brazil’s outstanding World Cup qualifying campaign, as they went unbeaten through 17 games to finish top of the single South American qualifying group.
He set up another eight goals and developed promising relationships with fellow attackers like Richarlison and Lucas Paqueta.
“With Neymar in good form, we have a great chance of winning the World Cup, because he is a player who really can make the difference on the field,” Brazil great Cafu told AFP.
Neymar may be fuelled by the desire to finally win a Ballon d’Or, but above all he will be determined to banish the memory of his previous World Cups.
Brazil’s 2014 campaign ended in a disastrous 7-1 humiliation at home to Germany in the semi-finals.
Yet that only came after Neymar — carrying the weight of a nation on his shoulders — suffered a fractured bone in his back in a challenge by Juan Camilo Zuniga in their last-eight defeat of Colombia.
Four years later Neymar scored in wins over Costa Rica and Mexico but Tite’s team underwhelmed as they went out in the quarter-finals to Belgium.
– Off-field controversy –
Neymar’s international disappointment also extended to the 2019 Copa America, which Brazil won without him as he recovered from an ankle ligament injury.
He was back as Brazil hosted last year’s Copa, but could not prevent them losing the final to Argentina at the Maracana.
So far success with his country has been limited to the 2013 Confederations Cup and an Olympic gold at the Rio Games in 2016.
“I hope he is in inspired form so that Brazil have a greater chance of reaching the final,” Careca, who played for the Selecao at the 1986 and 1990 World Cups, told AFP.
Yet Neymar’s fine form on the pitch comes as he continues to make headlines off the field.
Prosecutors in Spain recently dropped corruption and fraud charges against Neymar and several others accused in a trial over his 2013 move from Santos to Barcelona.
Meanwhile he also came in for criticism after coming out in support of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro in the Brazilian presidential election campaign.
“It would be marvellous: Bolsonaro re-elected, Brazil champions and everybody would be happy,” he said while joining in a campaign rally online from Paris.
Neymar promised to dedicate his first goal in Qatar to Bolsonaro, who lost the election to the leftist candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
In a polarised country, marked by four years under Bolsonaro and the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic which has caused almost 700,000 deaths, many observers have been critical of Neymar’s decision to back the outgoing president.
Nevertheless, Neymar is focused on his World Cup goal.
“I have a dream of winning it,” he said in a recent interview with PSG’s website.