Pele: Away from Messi, Neymar can be the big star

Neymar PSG Paris Saint-Germain
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The Brazil legend told Goal of his satisfaction at his compatriot's rise from his old club Santos and believes he will benefit from his move to PSG

There is a special glint in his eye. For Pele, talking about Neymar is also the opportunity to remember his own past, his rise to greatness at Santos and with Brazil. And the sense of delight he feels for his countryman is all apparent.

Pele is speaking to Goal in Barcelona, where Neymar has lived for the past four years. By now, however, the 25-year-old no longer calls the Catalan capital home, having sealed a shock move to Paris Saint-Germain for €222 million in August.

"People always ask me about Neymar," Pele says in an exclusive interview. "Wherever I go, everyone wants to know about Neymar and I am very proud because my son, who was a goalkeeper at Santos, Edinho, was coach of the youngsters at Santos for two or three years and Neymar was there at that time. So I spoke to Neymar’s father a few times. I had some photos taken with them, we did a commercial in Brazil. And I feel very proud that Neymar came out of Santos, and that my son was his coach. I feel great pride. I hope he is lucky with his career and I hope he keeps playing his football."

Many players have been dubbed 'the new Pele', but none have truly lived up to that moniker. How can they? Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pele, led Brazil to three World Cups and scored over 1,000 goals in a glittering career spent mostly at Santos.

"I came from Santos, Neymar as well," he says. "When he was much younger, he was from Sao Vicente, close to Santos. And when he started out, my son told me, 'There is a kid at Santos who is really good’. But I didn’t expect that. Years later, Neymar appeared. I hope he has the same good fortune that I had in my career. I hope he is fortunate because he is a great player and a great person as well."

Pele Neymar quote

Like Pele, Neymar was the star at Santos, but at Barcelona things were different. The Brazilian formed part of a trident described by coach Luis Enrique as "the best in the history of football" alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, yet there is no doubt that the Argentine was the main man.

At his unveiling in 2013, Neymar told the Catalan media he was "here to help Messi" and when he left last month, he posted an emotional message on Instagram in which he described the Argentine as "the greatest athlete I have ever seen in my life". Over at his PSG presentation, he then spoke of "new challenges" in his career.

"It’s a great responsibility he has now," Pele says. "Because people started comparing Neymar to Messi. And as a Brazilian, I say that there’s no doubt that Neymar is one of the best in his position, because we have Cristiano Ronaldo who is a centre-forward as well. But with Messi it’s a bit different. Messi is an organiser and he also scores goals.

"Neymar is more of a striker. There is no doubt he has a great future ahead, but there are things he needs to improve on, in the next World Cups for example. Today, with different styles, Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar are the best players in the world. There are other players, but the best in the world at the moment are those three."

Over the past nine years, the Ballon d'Or has been won by either Messi (five times) or Ronaldo (who has four and will be expected to win a fifth in December). So even though Neymar claimed he had not moved to win the individual award, nor to escape Messi's shadow, there is the belief that a team in which he is the star can give him the chance to prove just how talented he is.

"For Neymar, I think it [moving to PSG] was the best thing," Pele says. "For Brazil, not much changes. There are other good players. But for him, I think it was the best thing because there was always the discussion, ‘Neymar, Messi, Neymar, Messi’. Now, he will have the opportunity to be the big star. But for the Brazil national team, not much changes."

Lionel Messi Neymar Barcelona La Liga 050617 Pele and Neymar

Pele, of course, only moved from Santos to the New York Cosmos, rejecting a number of top teams from Europe because he was happy in Brazil and winning titles aplenty with O Peixe.

"They are different moments," the 76-year-old says. "Different eras. I was really happy at Santos, because Santos were winning almost all the titles at that time, we were world champions twice, and I never accepted leaving Santos. I had offers from Real Madrid, Manchester United, Benfica, Roma, from two or three Italian teams. But I was happy at Santos. I wasn’t going to move just for the sake of moving or for a little more money. But they were different times.

"And I only accepted to leave Santos and go to Cosmos at the end of my career. But it was to promote football in the USA. At that time, Mr. [Henry] Kissinger was in Sao Paulo, he was in Brazil. He called me and said, 'Listen, we want to do a big promotion and implement football in the USA and we have an offer for you to come and coach’.

"So I believe it was different to going to play in Italy, Spain or Germany. It was more an offer to coach, to teach the kids, and for that reason I went to New York Cosmos, but it was at the end of my career."


A World Cup winner in 1958, 1962 and 1970, Pele now hopes Brazil can recover from the disappointment and the depression of the nation's 7-1 loss to Germany in the semi-finals in Belo Horizonte in 2014, a setback that brought back memories of seeing his father mourn the painful loss to Uruguay on home soil in 1950.

"I think in football there are always great surprises," he says. "Everyone talks about the World Cup and everyone criticised Brazil, Neymar got injured... in the last World Cup. And people forget that, of the five World Cups Brazil have, none of them were won in Brazil. They have won five and none of them were in Brazil.

"First in 1950, and I have a great memory of that. I was around 10 years old and my father was a professional with Bauru Atletico Clube, and I saw my father crying, with the other players, and I said, ‘What has happened?’ And he said, ‘Brazil lost the World Cup’. They were listening on the radio at that time.

"And later, Brazil won five World Cups, but the last one, which was in Brazil, was lost again. So it’s a difficult story to understand. Why does God do that? The two World Cups played in Brazil, and Brazil lost. So I think that now, the next World Cup is going to be in Russia and Tite, it looks like he is building a good team. They are confident and let’s hope they win. We are going to be there."

Brazil World Cup qualifying

He means it. Pele says he is feeling good after an operation to repair his replacement hip and with a World Cup around the corner, he wants to be there as he always is, supporting Brazil from the sidelines. So will he make any predictions this time around?

"It’s difficult," he says. "I have spoken several times about players I have known. When I saw [Johan] Cruyff, in a game we played with Santos, a friendly, I said Cruyff would be a great player, and he was. Eusebio, [Franz] Beckenbauer, when I saw him play, as well.

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"So it’s difficult to say, but Neymar has a big chance to be among the great players at the next World Cup."

And if that particular prediction ends up coming true, with Neymar lifting the trophy for Brazil next summer in Russia, it is clear that there will be yet more pride for Pele.

*** Pele was speaking at a Snickers event that saw competition winners from over 20 countries come to Barcelona to play with the legend ***