He is an unlikely symbol of the new Brazil – a skinny, mohawked 19-year-old with a shy smile – but Neymar da Silva Santos Junior is just that. Already a superstar in his homeland, Neymar is riding the crest of a remarkable economic boom. He has a pay packet to rival the top players in Europe and this week can test himself against the best at the Fifa Club World Cup in Japan. The message from Brazil is clear: watch out Barcelona and watch out Lionel Messi.
"It is certain that Neymar will be the best in the world by 2014, without doubt," says his coach at Santos, Muricy Ramalho. "Now Messi is the best, Cristiano Ronaldo (below) is second. Neymar is third best in the world, but by the World Cup here in Brazil, he will be first."
Pele goes even further. "I think Neymar is better than Messi, more complete," says the man who brought Santos global fame. The comparisons in Brazil are relentless. When Neymar scored four goals for Santos on the same day that Messi hit a hat-trick for Barça, shortly before both were included on the 23-man shortlist for the Ballon d'Or last month, the front page of sports daily Lance! screamed "Learn Messi!"
Neymar himself is humble, and a little weary, when asked about Messi when we meet at Santos's training centre in a room adorned with murals of the club's heroes (Pele, Zito, Robinho, Elano), shortly before the squad left for Japan.
"Look, I don't know," he says. "To get where Messi has got to, you have to work very hard, train all the time, be totally dedicated. Yes, I hope one day I can arrive where Messi is now. So I have dedicated myself to this. I hope I can play against Messi in Japan. I would be honoured. Today he is the best in the world."
Neymar turned down Chelsea and Real Madrid before signing a new contract with Santos last month that will net him about £550,000 a month.
"I have no regrets," Neymar says about turning down Chelsea and Real. "It is still a dream of mine to play in Europe, but I don't know when. If I leave I want the moment to be right. But I will stay with Santos until 2014, it is definite."
With the release clause in his contract having been increased to €70m (£59.2m), and the option of walking away on a free after the World Cup, this looks the likeliest scenario, although a huge offer from Europe in the meantime could still change the landscape.
Ramalho believes Neymar will stay until after the World Cup. "Every world champion has a different player, a special one. Brazil in 2014 will have Neymar who will make the difference. The people who advise him understand that after the World Cup, when he will be 22, he will be better prepared for Europe."
There will be further tests of his patience. Long-lens paparazzi shots of him cavorting on a yacht in Dalmatian-patterned swimming trunks with friends, including a female Brazilian reality TV "star", recently made the front pages. But Neymar says: "No matter how famous or rich I become, I will never change."
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