Xavi has told RMC that football “has to protect” Neymar, saying he plays like Lionel Messi and backing him to win the Ballon d’Or.
The former Barcelona player, an ex-teammate of Neymar at the Camp Nou, said he believed the Paris Saint-Germain star “has individual potential that almost doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.”
Neymar has voiced frustration at criticism levelled at him since his arrival in France and earlier this season broke down in tears after playing for his country, citing it as the reason for his emotion.
The world’s most expensive player and his teammates were this week accused of disrespecting Coupe de France opponents Sochaux by celebrating Neymar’s 26th birthday on Sunday, two days before their cup tie.
Neymar has also had to deal with claims that his style of play provokes and humiliates opponents.
But Xavi said: “I respect the player but also the man.
“He’s a natural leader in the dressing room and on the pitch. He’s someone who always wants the ball, is ready to put on a show and do things well.
“Of course there have been times when opponents have fouled him and tried to provoke him, and it’s true he might have reacted because of his character. But nothing more than that.
“He’s a player who deserves attention and that the world of football has to protect, because he puts on a show. I have been lucky enough to get to know him personally and he’s an exceptional person.
“He has individual potential that almost doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world apart from Messi whom we could compare him with.
“It’s a way of seeing football. He sees it in enjoying dribbling, beating players, beating them one-on-one. It’s a very Brazilian way of seeing football as a means to enjoy yourself.
“Perhaps it’s interpreted as a lack of respect, but not at all. I know him personally — it’s not that.”
Xavi added that Neymar “has character, he’s a competitor and that can create tension, but he’s going to keep doing it” and said: “You have to understand him and respect him like you respect anyone else.”
One reason put forward for Neymar’s decision to leave Barcelona and join PSG was that he hoped to step out of the shadow of Messi and press his claims for the Ballon d’Or.
But with Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo now both over 30, Xavi believes it is a matter of time until Neymar wins football’s most prestigious individual prize.
“He’s an extraordinary footballer,” he said. “When either Messi or Ronaldo has a dip in form, which we’ll perhaps see first in Cristiano because of his age, Neymar will be the next Ballon d’Or [winner]. I’m convinced of that.”
Ian is ESPN’s French football correspondent. Twitter: @ian_holyman