SAO PAULO (AP) " In his first press conference as a Brazil player in more than 240 days, striker Neymar was not shy on Monday: he believes he is in the top moment of his career and plays for the best national team in the world.
The 25-year-old star also admitted he had to mature after a series of controversies on and off the pitch and promised Brazil would be one of the favorites in the next World Cup in Russia.
"There was never a dependency on Neymar. This is Brazil. If focused, our team is the best," he told journalists before the South American zone leader's World Cup qualifying match against seventh-place Paraguay on Tuesday. "We know this, we are humble enough to respect our adversaries, we have to play. Sometimes one part or the other didn't fit. But coach Tite arrived and made adjustments. We are playing football. The players are not so different " it is the way of playing. Now everyone turns up."
But Neymar also accepted he had to change to get to the current level of play.
"We only learn when we get hurt or do something wrong. I already argued unnecessarily. I got yellow and red cards, harmed myself, harmed my teammates. But time makes us more mature. Nowadays I only think about playing football, I am better in every aspect," Neymar said in a press conference, alongside Tite.
"Everyone needs time to get their heads straight so things calm down. I had my moment of being a little more silent, but now I am speaking again."
Beyond troubles on the pitch, Neymar also faces legal challenges in Spain due to suspicions of irregularities in his transfer from Santos to Barcelona. Tax authorities in Brazil are also investigating and have fined the striker, over which he is appealing. But that didn't stop the coach from giving the star the captaincy band for the game, a position Tite usually rotates.
"Neymar deserves the band, he is a skill leader and he is maturing despite unhuman pressure," Tite said.
Brazil's coach singled out a moment in his team's 4-1 victory at Uruguay on Thursday to show how much Neymar, who was often accused by rivals of diving and simulating injuries, had changed.
"In the last three games he was fouled more than 50 times and still remained focused on his game. Before he scored the third goal in the previous match, he knew (Uruguayan defender) Coates had already been booked and would be sent off if he had fallen. But he stood on his feet and scored," Tite said.
Although some already put him as future best player in the world, including big names like former Italian defender Alessandro Costacurta, Neymar rejected comparisons with multiple Ballon D'Or winners Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, his teammate at Barcelona.
"I don't feel comfortable to compare," he said. "They are two geniuses who have had colossal performances. I admire both. One is on my side every day, is the best I've played with," the Brazilian said, adding Messi had been key for his improvement.
"I was having a lot of difficulties in my beginning (at Barcelona). Then the best in the world said 'Calm down, it will all fall into place, play your game.' It was great for me," Neymar said. "I was reticent about talking to an idol, but Messi helped me relax. We are friends and that helps on the pitch. I also get along with Luis Suarez, we always help each other. I am very happy for this moment that I am living."
Neymar said he was targeting another strong performance against Paraguay, but would be putting less pressure on himself.
"There has been a big change. We now have more confidence to seek our identity and we did it. No matter when or where, Brazil will always be one of the favorites for titles," Neymar said.
Brazil will qualify for the World Cup with four games in hand at the Arena Corinthians if it beats Paraguay and sees Chile and Ecuador failing to win home matches.