Neymar has credited Cristiano Ronaldo for kickstarting the remarkable transformation of the Saudi Pro League, while the Brazilian forward said he was extremely motivated to deliver success for Al Hilal.
Neymar, 31, completed a blockbuster move from Paris Saint-Germain to Hilal earlier this week, shattering the Saudi Pro League (SPL) transfer record to become the latest high-profile player to move to the kingdom during an unprecedented summer transfer window.
The Brazil captain follows the likes of Ballon d'Or holder Karim Benzema, World Cup winner N'Golo Kante, Manchester City treble-winner Riyad Mahrez, and former Liverpool quartet Jordan Henderson, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Fabinho in moving to the Saudi Pro League this summer.
Neymar joins a Hilal side who have made several stunning deals of their own. The Riyadh giants, the most successful club in Saudi football, have broken the league transfer record three times this window, first by recruiting Portuguese midfielder Ruben Neves from Wolves and again with the signing of Brazilian winger Malcom from Zenit St Petersburg, before Neymar completed the hat-trick.
Former Chelsea and Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly and midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, previously of Lazio, will also be Neymar's teammates.
It was Ronaldo, though, who seemingly paved the way when he joined Al Nassr in December last year, while the involvement of Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund in the league's four biggest clubs has allowed this transformative summer to take place.
“I believe Cristiano Ronaldo started all of this and everybody called him 'crazy', and this and that. Today you see the league grow more and more," Neymar said in his first interview since joining Hilal, adding that he's excited to take on the Portuguese superstar and the rest of the big players in the league.
“It is exciting, meeting top quality players on the other teams thrills you, and motivates you to play even better," he said. "And it is a given when you face Ronaldo, Benzema, Firmino, that the excitement is even greater. So I am happy to join this league, facing them will be wonderful, it will be fantastic.”
Neymar, who signed a two-year contract with Hilal, undoubtedly adds even greater star power to the SPL, arriving with one of the most glittering records in world football which comprises 22 major club trophies for Santos, Barcelona, and PSG including seven league titles, the Uefa Champions League, and Copa Libertadores.
He is therefore the ideal fit for Hilal – the most successful club in Asian football with 66 trophies, including 18 league titles and four Asian Champions League titles, but Neymar insisted the focus is on the present and future.
“The league will be very competitive, especially after the signings made in the summer transfer window," he said. "I believe competitiveness is important. That’s why I am joining this league. I am driven by challenges. I am there to help the league grow.”
Neymar is accustomed to playing alongside some of the most talented players in the world; at Hilal it will be no different, and he revealed the squad was a key factor in his decision to join the club.
Al Hilal fans get their Neymar shirts
“I think it is very important to have quality in the squad," he said. "Obviously it helps in some decisions you take throughout your career. It was certainly for me. I am very excited to write a new story chasing all the objectives with the club and my teammates – winning more and more titles and fulfilling the club’s ambition. I am very excited in that regard.”
Neymar has not played a competitive match since March having been sidelined with a long-term ankle injury which required surgery. He did, however, participate in part of PSG's pre-season as the Brazilian aims to regain fitness and he hopes both he and Hilal will continue to improve as the season progresses.
"It is a step-by-step process, training session after training session, game after game. We will grow more and more," he said. "It is difficult to come and say ‘we are going to win’ before starting our work. That's what I believe. To start work immediately, our objective is to win championships, win titles and surely reach the highest summit. It's the fans aspiration, so that's what we are aiming for.”
All the major Saudi Pro League 2023/24 transfers
As for playing in front of Hilal fans, who help make the club one of the best-supported sides in Asia, Neymar said: “I believe when it comes to football, we have similar passion to that of Al Hilal fans. They can expect all the effort from me on the pitch. I will give my best for the club. Our goal is winning titles."
Neymar not only becomes the latest Brazilian to join the SPL this summer, but continues an impressive tradition of Brazilian players to represent Hilal, following in the footsteps of of 1970 World Cup winner Rivellino. Since then, more than 30 Brazilian players have played for the Riyadh club.
“Of course a lot of Brazil will be watching the league," Neymar said. "Obviously I will be there and I expect all Brazilians and everybody following league to support Al Hilal! The message I have for them is I will do my best to make them enjoy football, our goal is winning all titles.”