Brazil forward Neymar said he is not fully fit to play in the two opening rounds of World Cup qualifying due to the right ankle injury that has sidelined him since February.
Neymar left Paris Saint-Germain for Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal but hasn’t yet played for his new club. He said in a press conference Thursday that the Saudi Pro League could be as good as France’s Ligue 1 — if not better.
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Brazil will play its first match in World Cup qualifying on Friday in the Amazon city of Belem against Bolívia. Then the Selecao will travel to face Peru on Tuesday.
Neymar clarified his injury status ahead of the games after Al Hilal coach Jorge Jesus criticised the Brazil Football Confederation (CBF) for calling him up while he was still not in physical condition to play.
The 31-year-old, though, said that he has joined up with Brazil in similar condition before and still played, adding that Jesus was just wanting to “protect” him.
“I feel well, happy, but obviously I am not 100% fit. But my head is well, my body is well,” Neymar said. “I was going to play the latest match [of Al Hilal], but I was hit during training and the coach chose to leave me out, so I could come to Brazil.”
Neymar’s most-recent match for Brazil was the World Cup quarterfinal loss to Croatia. He left Qatar with doubts about his future in the national team and did not play the Selecao’s first three games this year.
Now Neymar’s doubts seem to be over.
“After a lot of pressure from family and friends [to return to the national team] you start giving value to everything you did,” Neymar said. “When you are with your people, your family, they put you in your place and make you see it is worth to continue being happy by wearing Brazil’s shirt.”
Neymar needs one goal to move past Pelé’s 77 goals as top scorer for the national team in official matches, an achievement that the CBF is not keen to celebrate due to its different count of the tally; it says the three-time World Cup winner has 95 goals.
Neymar agreed that the mark is another incentive for him to play for Brazil, though.
“It is hard to know what that record means, but it does mean a lot,” he said. “No one ever thought about overcoming that. It is something I will respond after it is done.”
Neymar, who faced criticism from fans in France in recent years and left PSG amid reports he was not wanted at the club, took a swipe at his previous league during the press conference.
Asked how he would keep competitive in a league outside Europe, Neymar said: “I assure you that soccer there [in Saudi Arabia] is the same. The ball is round, there’s a goal, and if you look at the names that have gone to the Saudi league… I don’t know whether it is better than the French league or not.”
“I want to win titles for Al Hilal, my head won’t change much. Everyone said the same when I went to France [about competitiveness], and it was the place I was hit the most in my life,” Neymar added.
“I am sure that it won’t be easy to win the Saudi championship, other teams got stronger, have famous players. It will be very interesting and I am sure you will be watching.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.