DUBAI: Opinion is often divided among football followers when it comes to Neymar.
Alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez at Barcelona from 2014 to 2017, the forward was part of the winning streak to rival the most skilful and efficient attacks in the game.
They combined for 363 goals, 173 assists and awards before Neymar was sold when Paris Saint-Germain paid his 222 million euro ($221.3 million) buyout clause.
A move – and still a world record – in 2017 may not have been the success story he or the club planned.
Despite dominating the domestic competition, the Qatari-owned French side have yet to qualify for the Champions League despite a host of talent that also includes Kylian Mbappe and Messi upon his arrival from Barcelona in 2021, and Neymar’s performance and contribution questioned by critics.
And for Brazil; will Neymar’s name deservedly stand alongside the all-time greats if he doesn’t lead them to World Cup success?
Despite his 75 international goals – just two shy of the legendary Pele’s record – in 121 games, the 30-year-old has only won gold at the 2016 Olympics with the national team in major competitions.
Due to injury, he missed Brazil’s infamous 7-1 home semi-final defeat to Germany in the 2014 World Cup, before crashing out in the quarter-finals in Russia four years later with a loss to Belgium.
At the Copa America, Willian replaced the injured Neymar before the Selecao won the 2019 tournament and they lost last year’s final to Argentina last year even with their talisman in their ranks.
But Willian, capped 70 times by his country, has no doubts about Neymar’s quality or impact at club or country.
“Neymar is an incredible player, he can influence Brazil at any time,” he said.
“From the first minute to the last minute, he is a special player for Brazil.”
However, the pressure will be on Neymar and Brazil in next month’s tournament in Qatar.
Led by Tite – who had brief spells with the UAE side at Al-Ain and Al-Wahda – Brazil are among the favorites to win a sixth title but their first since 2002.
“I think the pressure is normal,” added Fulham midfielder Willian. – Brazil is a huge country with a lot of history, it has already won the world championship five times and always wants to win.
“Brazil always has a chance to win the World Cup because Brazil is Brazil with so many quality players.
– But at the same time, we know how difficult it is to win the world championship, and there will also be other high-quality national teams there.
“But I hope this is the time they win it again . . . and now I expect Brazil to go there in Qatar and win this World Cup.
Willian will follow their fortunes from England when he made a surprise return to the Premier League in September.
He won two titles in seven seasons at Chelsea before joining Arsenal on a free transfer in 2020.
But the move to the Emirates Stadium proved such an unhappy experience that he cut it short after just one year on a three-year deal.
A spell at his boyhood club Corinthians followed, but death threats on social media prompted another early exit.
Fulham offered Willian a contract until the end of the season and the 34-year-old has already impressed, scoring his first goal in a 3-2 win over Leeds that lifted the club to seventh.
Manager Marco Silva believes his guile and experience will be invaluable to the side who were promoted last season.
And Willian is relishing the chance to go back in time.
“I just wanted to play in the Premier League again,” he said. – For me, it’s the best league in the world.
“To play in the Premier League you have to enjoy yourself and I’m doing that – it feels so good to be back.
“I enjoy the moment, I enjoy the game, but at the same time always winning. I want to compete, score goals and play well.
“I also think I’m younger. I’m 34, but I feel like 28, something like that. I feel good and I’m enjoying this moment a lot. I want to play until I’m 40, if possible, I want to. I have to take care of myself off the field, but I’m well.
Fulham’s impressive start to the season has sparked talk of a first appearance in European competition since reaching the Europa League in 2011 via the Fair Play League.
In the 2009-10 season, they reached the Europa League final, where they lost to Atletico Madrid.
But Willian added: “You know how difficult this league is so we have to go step by step, game by game and I think we will.
“It’s too early to think about Europe, but we have ambitions and of course, if it’s possible, we want to go.
“This team is a very good team with a lot of players who want to win and have the ambition to win things – and I’m proud to be playing for Fulham at the moment.
“But I don’t play alone, I need the team, they need me and it’s a mix. I’m learning from them and I’m here to help them and help the team as much as I can to win games.