As a 27-year-old right-back was preparing to tackle the indecipherable puzzle that was Neymar in 2012, he got a tap on the shoulder, spun round, and received some words of advice. Not from his Mirassol coach or one of the Brazilian fourth-flight side’s senior players, but from his 11-year-old son.
Fast-forward a few years and that miniature mentor was Neymar’s team-mate in a Brazil squad that kicked off FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ qualifying with a 5-0 thumping of Bolivia. Rodrygo’s rise has, indeed, mimicked his nickname, ‘O Rayo’.
The winger broke records for Santos, including becoming the youngest Brazilian to score in the Copa Libertadores, before signing for Real Madrid as a 17-year-old. He netted his first goal for Los Blancos within a minute of his debut, and on his UEFA Champions League bow in November 2019, became the youngest Brazilian to score in the competition and the second-youngest player to register a hat-trick in it after Raul.
FIFA.com caught up with Rodrygo to discuss his World Cup aspirations, Real Madrid’s bid for domestic and continental glory, Neymar, Casemiro, Karim Benzema, and more.
Rodrygo, there’s a rumour the Mirassol right-back received some special tips before marking Santos’s Neymar…
(Laughs) I was in the youth ranks at Santos, so I used to watch all of Neymar’s games. I’d seen so many different moves he would do and I knew how difficult it was to mark Neymar.
I was only 11, but I told my dad to watch out because Neymar would do this move and watch out because he would do this trick. My dad had a good game, so maybe the kid’s tips weren’t that bad!
Who were your idols growing up?
I always liked Neymar, Robinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, but my biggest hero was my dad. I used to love going to watch him play. I was sad when we were apart because of football, but sometimes we moved cities to be with him. That stopped when I joined Santos.
What do you think of Neymar?
An absolute genius as a footballer, a unique player.
And he’s an incredible person. In the short time we’ve had together, he’s been a sensational influence on me.
How much have you dreamed about playing in the World Cup?
Ever since I understood what football is, I have dreamed of playing in the World Cup. The World Cup in Brazil is something amazing.
I remember being young and seeing the streets painted with Brazilian colours. You gather the whole family to watch the games, everyone cheering the Selecao fanatically.
They are great memories.
Now I want to be one of those players I was watching. Brazil has so many great players, so there’s a lot of competition, but every day I’m doing everything possible to make it happen. Ever since I turned professional as a 16-year-old, I’ve always listened to everything my coaches have said, tried to soak the advice in and to learn from my team-mates. I thank them all for helping me reach where I am, but I will continue to try and learn, improve to realize my World Cup dream.
Being two-footed and able to play in a few positions could help you. Is it a natural talent or something you have worked on?
I think I had a natural aptitude, but it was more to do with my dad and a lot of practice. Since I was very little my dad made me shoot with both feet, control the ball with two feet. I trained a lot on my weaker foot and day by day, I became more two-footed.
Aside from Brazil, who do you think has the best chance of winning Qatar 2022?
(Pauses) I think Spain or France. They have really strong teams. Portugal are building a really good team too.
You mentioned Ronaldo was an idol of yours. In mid-2018, Madrid signed you and sold him. Do you regret not having had the chance to play alongside Cristiano?
No. I’m delighted to have fulfilled a dream and be here at Real Madrid.
Look, I’ve always followed Cristiano’s career, watched him do wonders for Real Madrid, and it would have been great to play alongside him, but I’m very happy to be living the dream of being a Real Madrid player.
What do you think of Casemiro?
Casa’s a phenomenon. He’s a guy who’s helped me a lot since I arrived here. He’s a wonderful person.
I’d seen him playing on the TV beforehand and thought he was an incredible player, but he’s even better than I thought. Casemiro is without doubt the best defensive midfielder in the world.
You’ve been on fire in the Champions League. You must be delighted with your performances in the competition?
Without doubt. Fortunately, in every game that I’ve played in the competition, I’ve been able to score a goal, make an assist or play well and help my team.
We’re satisfied to reach the quarter-finals, but our target is to win the final. We’re not the favourites this year, but I believe we can win the Champions League.
Next up will be Liverpool…
The further you go in this competition, the more difficult it becomes. At this stage, all the teams are really strong, and Liverpool are one of them. They will definitely be two great games, very even.
Real Madrid and Liverpool – is always a huge fixture between two traditional giants of world football. I remember the 2018 final well, I watched it and even then I was cheering Real on a lot. It was a special and memorable final.
Real are third in La Liga, six points behind leaders Atletico. Do you believe you will win the title?
Without doubt. There’s a lot of points to play for. We’re working really hard. It’s about going on a run. Last year we were behind Barcelona, but we put a run of victories together and won the title.
We need to do the same again. This team has so much fight in it and we have a lot of quality. I think things are coming together at the right time and that we have a big chance of becoming champions.
Madrid face Barcelona soon. What’s it like to play in El Clásico?
It’s an amazing sensation. Around a week before the game you start feeling it. It’s a game anyone who likes football has always dreamed of playing in.
The world watches it. It’s incredible to play in a game of this magnitude.
Who do you think is the best player in the world?
Benzema. He’s an exceptional player. He’s having an incredible season, he had an incredible season last year, and he’s had several incredible seasons in his career.
To play alongside him is a big honour. I really enjoy being able to supply him with passes. His finishing is magnificent. He’s a really cool guy too.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I like to spend time with my family and friends, go out for dinner, play the ukulele, play table tennis and basketball. I like watching the NBA too. I’m a fan of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Lebron [James].