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Neymar will soon surpass Pele's Brazil goalscoring record - so why is his legacy still in doubt?

12:00 AM MYT 23/06/2021
Neymar Pele GFX Brazil
The PSG superstar will likely be top scorer by the time the World Cup kicks off in Qatar but some feel he still needs that trophy to be a true legend

Neymar is known for wearing his heart on his sleeve when he pulls on Brazil's iconic yellow shirt.

So it was no surprise that, after another towering performance for the Selecao which put him in touching distance of Pele's goal record, the Paris Saint-Germain forward struggled to hold back the tears.

“It is an honour for me to form part of Brazil national team history,” he said after netting against Peru in the Copa America on Thursday to take his tally to 68, just nine short of the World Cup legend of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

“I could never have imagined reaching these numbers. It even moves me because I have been through a lot these past two years, which were difficult and complicated.

“Now we are going through an atypical moment, hard times across the whole world, and to bring joy to someone in turn makes me very happy. I want my family and friends to be proud.”

There is plenty for Neymar to be proud of. After experiencing the anguish of missing out on Brazil's triumphant Copa campaign two years ago through injury, and the long lay-off due to Covid-19, he has come back better than ever in international colours.

Since Brazil returned to the pitch in 2020, their star has netted seven times in six games while also contributing six assists, meaning he was directly involved in 13 of the 20 goal Tite's men notched in those encounters.

The nation have won every one of their last 10 games, and can make it three wins out of three in the 2021 Copa on Wednesday should they take down struggling Colombia. As tricky and impossible to slow down as always, Neymar has been a key figure in that golden run.

 

He may no longer be the nation's permanent captain, but he remains the biggest icon on the field and the focus of all attention; the main source of creative genius in a team which generally values organisation and solidity over flashes of individual inspiration.

However, despite his wonderful showings over the last decade, there is still a question mark over Neymar's ultimate legacy with Brazil. It is once more a question of numbers, three versus zero - the total number of World Cups lifted by Pele and his apparent heir respectively, and a statistic which has been used as a stick with which to beat the PSG superstar throughout his career.

Comparing the pair solely on one tournament is of course a futile exercise. For one thing, football has changed immensely since Pele's heyday, making any parallels between the two generations impossible to make.

Neymar, for instance, his every move filmed and documented since he first burst onto the scene at Santos as a teenager, has never enjoyed the element of surprise that 17-year-old Pele and his brilliant Selecao team-mates, effective strangers to the unsuspecting European contingent, had when they bulldozed their way through Sweden in 1958.

Four years later the great man was effectively kicked out of the World Cup in Chile, similar to how Neymar's campaign in 2014 succumbed to a brutal hit from Colombia's Camilo Zuniga and an injured spine.

Brazil could nevertheless call on otherworldly talents like Garrincha, Zito, Vava and Amarildo to see them through to glory; whereas without Neymar, Luiz Felipe Scolari's team folded in humiliating circumstances to Germany in that infamous 7-1 destruction.

In 2018, too, ill-fortune of a different kind intervened to destroy his World Cup dreams, namely Thibaut Courtois. The Belgium goalkeeper put in the performance of a lifetime to deny one of the favourites to take the title – inflicting in the process the only defeat Brazil have suffered competitively in the five years Tite has sat in the hot-seat.

One man at least is convinced that Neymar has nothing more to prove: none other than Pele himself.

“Every time I see this boy, he is smiling. It's impossible not to smile back. It is contagious,” O Rei wrote on Instagram, while sharing a picture of the record-breaking pair.

“I, like all Brazilians, am always happy when I see him playing soccer. Today, he took another step towards my goalscoring record for the Selecao.

“And I'm rooting for him to get there, with the same joy I've had since I saw him play for the first time.”

It now seems inevitable that Pele's record, which has stood since his retirement from international football in 1971, will soon pass into new hands.

Neymar may not reach the mark in the possible four games that Brazil have left in the Copa, should they reach the final, but it is more than likely that he will be Brazil's top scorer by the time the Selecao arrive in Qatar for their latest attempt to win that dearly desired sixth World Cup title.

One solitary major international title, the 2013 Confederations Cup, and Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro three years later is a poor return for the star's international career to date, and a win in this current Copa would be a huge boost for him and an answer to those critics who continue to doubt his Brazil record next to Pele and those other illustrious predecessors.

The big prize is in Qatar, though, and even if the king insists that the current prince is an idol in his own right, victory a year-and-a-half from now would ensure once and for all that Neymar has earned the right to enter the Selecao pantheon among some of the greatest players ever to step onto a football field.