I’m interviewing Paulo Neto at a strange time in his year: he’s just lost a competitive FIFA match. This is a statistical anomaly for the reigning eMLS champion, the most decorated man in US FIFA esports in 2022, and a member of Atlanta United, the team named eMLS Team of the Year in the same period. Practically the only other time he’s lost in the past 12 months is in the quarter finals of the FIFAe World Cup.
“I didn't play my best on these two days of eMLS qualifiers,” Neto tells me over video call. “I still managed to get top six, which is not a bad result, but I wasn’t even near my top level.”
He’s bitterly disappointed, but bad days “just happen,” and he’s not a sore loser. He praises his opponents that got the better of him, and promises that he’ll come back stronger. I just didn’t expect it to happen so soon. As reigning eMLS champion, he topped the power rankings going into Series 1 of 2023, and he quickly turned around his poor performances to put on a dominant show when it mattered most.
After going 7-3-3 in the Round Robin, Neto topped his group with an impressive 12 points, before storming the knockout rounds, scoring 26 goals in the four high-stakes matches. He beat Minnesota United’s Ehsan ‘Lamps’ Zakeri by an astonishing 9-1 in the final, and picked up a fully deserved first place. He's back to his winning ways, and believes that all his hard work is finally paying off.
“It's an amazing feeling,” he says, thinking back over his past year of successes. “Not just because of the eMLS, but because we went to the FIFAe World Cup, and we got top four in the world in the Team of the Season Cup with my [former] partner ‘Vini’ [Leiva Tonetto] on duos.”
Despite using similar teams in duos, it’s a very different ball game. It’s not like being a champion in both football and rugby, but it utilises different skills, kind of like winning the 100m Sprint and then the 400m Relay. Neto is still building the chemistry and synergy he says is necessary to have success in Duos with new partner Gabriel ‘Young’ Freitas, but if his individual performances are anything to go by, it will be difficult to stop him in any format.
I ask if the style and flair that the Brazilian football team is known for translates to the country’s esports players, and Neto immediately gets a little misty-eyed. “Everyone in Brazil likes soccer,” he says. “We always play soccer and we love to watch it, and I think that this passion comes to FIFA as well; when we have a video game, we want to play soccer as well. So we play FIFA.”
It surprises me somewhat that his favourite footballer isn’t a Brazilian. “Cristiano Ronaldo is my biggest football idol,” Neto says. “Not just because he played for Madrid, the team that I support, but also because he's a great player, and because of his mentality. That's very important.”
Neto clearly takes inspiration from his hero when it comes to getting in the right headspace. Few FIFA players would be able to so quickly turn around such a devastating first day of matches into one of the most dominant displays the eMLS has ever seen. With his sights set on another eMLS title, the defence of which continues with Series 2 this weekend, and progressing further in the eWorld Cup in 2023, Neto is driven and seems practically unstoppable.
“I aim to be working even harder and trying to push myself to a better level,” he says, despite having won nearly everything there is to win with Atlanta. “I always have room for improvement. So I'm just trying to do that.”
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