There is a good chance that during the course of the World Cup, Neymar will score three times to break Pele’s record as the all-time top goalscorer for the Brazil men’s national team. This will seem like sacrilege to some. But the mere fact that Pele is still in the lead with 77 goals is an extraordinary testament to the greatness of the man.
With the explosion of international football the top marksman of every other South American men’s side is a current or recently retired player. For Brazil, Pele remains on top for the men (Marta and her 115 goals ranks as most of any player in a Seleção jersey) and whatever happens in the next few weeks his place on the Mount Rushmore of Brazilian football would seem safe for the foreseeable future.
– 2022 World Cup: All squad lists for Qatar
The Pele-Neymar comparison has some fascinating aspects. And it is no disrespect to the wonderful talent of Neymar to conclude that there is a clear winner in this race. There seems to have been a backlash against Pele in the last few years. It is foolish. He was ahead of his time to an almost ludicrous degree — a global icon of the game before it went truly global, an athlete in magnificent condition before the advent of modern sports science, a player of such technical perfection that he could have been the product of a computer design.
Pele could clearly have played in the era of Neymar. But the reverse does not apply. Neymar is a product of his times, a hot housed graduate of futsal rather than of informal street football. He would not have been able to cope with the rough treatment that was handed out to Pele on the field on a weekly basis. Indeed, one of the most controversial aspects of Neymar is that he appears to interpret football as a non-contact sport. Street footballers learn the essential lesson of self-defence. Neymar has always protected himself by using the referee, and this makes him extremely controversial with the old guard of the game.
Dutch legend Marco van Basten supplies one of the most recent examples of a former player appalled by Neymar’s habit of constantly playing the victim. Of course, like all skillful players since the dawn of time, Neymar is much more sinned against than sinning. Opponents will resort to tough and foul measures to prevent him stamping his ability on the match. And if he can justifiably be accused of diving, then Pele was also no angel in this respect. Referees of the time recall his proficiency at winning free kicks by wrapping his arm inside an opponent’s and pulling them both to the ground in a way that made it look as if he had suffered the foul.
It is a mistake to paint Pele as an angel. He could also take care of himself physically when required — and it was required, because in his time players had nothing like the same protection from the referee as those of Neymar’s generation. Different players, different eras. Two incredible talents. But perhaps one startling coincidence highlights the difference between them.
Going into this World Cup, Neymar is a few months short of his 31st birthday — almost exactly the same age as Pele when he retired from international football in 1971. When Pele first played for Brazil they had not a single world title to their name. The exuberant skinny kid of 1958 became the bulkier but smarter wise old head of 1970, by which time his country had won three World Cups and could call the Jules Rimet trophy their own.
Pele is the rod by which all subsequent Brazilian stars are measured — and found wanting. It is probably always destined to be an unfair comparison. Nothing can ever live up to the first time, the moment when watching the World Cup became a habit all across the globe.
But if Pele left the scene having done it all, Neymar at the same age has it all to do. This is not entirely his fault. The World Cup has been cruel to him. He was just too young for 2010, picked up a bad injury in the quarterfinals of 2014, and four years ago in Russia he was probably as good as could have been expected after a lengthy injury lay off.
Neymar said that Qatar will probably be his last World Cup. He does not even have a Copa America to his credit. So now it is a case of all or nothing. In the eyes of his compatriots, his legacy will be defined by what happens over the next few weeks. He knows it. He has prepared for this moment. The timing looks good. He is often at his best in the first half of the European season, and now there is a highly promising generation of Brazilian attackers have emerged to take some of their weight off his slender shoulders.
It is one of the big questions hanging over this World Cup and it could hardly be more intriguing — is Neymar worthy of a place in the house that Pele built?
Can Neymar win World Cup and break Pele’s Brazil goal mark?
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