Tuesday 16 November 2021, 10:00

Paqueta: I learnt a lot from Iniesta and Xavi

  • Lucas Paqueta scored the goal that qualified Brazil for Qatar 2022

  • He assesses his evolution into a key player for his country

  • The 24-year-old discusses Neymar and the World Cup

You’ll go a long way to find a more relaxing place to retire than Paqueta Island, an enchanting paradise that has inspired novelists, poets, painters and filmmakers. Its streets are made of clay, there are no cars or motorcycles – even its taxi service is via bicycle or horse and carriage – few buildings and the Praia da Moreninha, a seductive beach offering heavenly views.

Mirao should have been basking in those fruits. The seventy-something was, by contrast, awaking at silly o’clock to catch a boat across Guanabara Bay to Rio de Janeiro – it took between 40 minutes and an hour-and-a-half – to chaperone his two grandchildren. There, they would catch multiple buses to get Matheus to football training in one part of Rio Janeiro and Lucas to futsal practice in another, before catching the last boat back at midnight. They would get home after 1am and complete the same cycle the following day. To Mirao it was indubitably worth it – worth it because, as he proudly told the 3,500 inhabitants of Paqueta, one day they’d play professionally. And though he sadly never got to see it – Mirao passed away shortly before they did – the eldest boy has gone on to play in Brazil and Italy and the youngest is dazzling for Lyon and the Seleção. Lucas Paqueta has a tribute to Mirao tattooed on his leg – a star encompassing an M. He desperately wants to help tattoo a sixth star on his nation’s sacred shirt, and on Thursday he scored the goal that qualified Brazil for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™. He speaks to FIFA about his upbringing, learning from Xavi and Andres Iniesta, his evolvement into the attacking midfielder Tite craved and playing alongside Neymar.

FIFA: How was growing up on Paqueta Island? Lucas Paqueta: People always said that I was always a little like Tarzan! No shoes, no shirt. It was always sunny, the weather was really nice. Paqueta was a place that others came on holidays and I called home, so it was really fun growing up there with my friends. It was really special for me. It’s not just in my name but in my heart as well. How did you get to training for Flamengo? We were out for practically the entire day. I trained at night at the Gavea and my brother trained in the afternoon at Ninho. My granddad was the only person who could take us. So we’d leave home at 9am, get a boat. We’d go and watch my brother train. Then they would come and watch me train. We got the last boat home at midnight. It was really tiring, but it was really enjoyable at the same time to be going after this dream. My granddad was a rock. He had this goal of seeing us play professionally. Unfortunately he didn’t get to see it because he passed away, but he left us on the cusp of this. I think he’d be proud now.

You’ve since rocketed to 1.80 tall, but at 15 years old you were only 1.53m. Were you worried that you wouldn’t make it as a footballer because of this? It was a really difficult for me. I suffered greatly because of it. Even in games, I would feel this size inferiority. This is what hurt me the most, not what others would say. I would often go home crying. But I had the support of my granddad, my mum, my dad and this was fundamental for me to continue believing in my dreams. And in my heart, I always knew I could make it because I was always so dedicated, I knew I wouldn’t give up. So, yes, it was a really difficult period but thankfully I got through it and everything worked out. You were named on Tite’s preliminary list for Russia 2018. Was it difficult to be so close to going to a World Cup but to miss out? No. To be honest it was a privilege to be among the 30 [players]. It was a triumph because I was young. I had only just established myself at Flamengo, so I took it as a conquest. How did it feel to score the goal that qualified Brazil for the World Cup? It’s always really emotional to score in the Seleção shirt, and that goal specifically was really emotional because of everything I’m living with the Seleção. I hope to continue doing my best in this shirt.

How much have you imagined playing in a World Cup? It’s my biggest dream. Since I was a kid I’ve always followed it. I think it’s every player’s dream to play in a World Cup, and it’s no different for me. I hope I can fulfil this dream. For a while the critics moaned that Brazil didn’t have a midfielder who could create chances and score goals. Then came Paqueta. Can you tell us about your evolution as a player? I’ve worked hard to be where I’m at now. Everywhere I’ve played has served to help me learn. In each place I learned a little, and it’s helped me evolve a lot. I think that I’m a more complete player now. I understand the game better thanks to all my team-mates in the Seleção, at Lyon. I’m better prepared. I watched Iniesta, Xavi play a lot in that era of Barcelona. I learnt a lot from them. That team was so intelligent. I always tried to go into a game in the same way as they did. Obviously I couldn’t (laughs). But I tried to get as close as I could, and I believe this has given me calm when it comes to making decisions on the pitch. What’s it like playing alongside Neymar? Neymar is an idol. I’ve always greatly admired his football, the person he is. [Playing with him] is unique, something that in a little while I’ll be able to tell my kids about. It’s a pleasure, an honour to play alongside him, helping the Seleção. I hope that our partnership lasts for a long time and that we can give a lot of joy to the Brazilian fans.

Excluding Brazil, who has the best national team in the world today? France have a great team. They’re really strong going into this World Cup. They have great players, like other national teams do, but France, for me, would give Brazil a tough test. If we meet them it will be a great game. Finally, who do you think is the best player in the world right now? [Robert] Lewandowski.