Pele’s huge claims that Neymar was a better player than Lionel Messi probably came from a good place, but it arguably set his fellow countryman up for widespread scepticism throughout his career.
The three-time World Cup winner made the stunning claim in April 2012 when a 20-year-old Neymar was starting to make serious waves with Brazilian outfit Santos.
Speaking at an event celebrating the centennial of Santos, Pele said: “There’s always this Diego Maradona comparison, saying that he’s better than Pele. Now some are saying that Messi is better than Pele.
“Well, he has to be better than Neymar first, which he isn’t yet. He has more experience.”
The comments certainly raised eyebrows but just over a year later Neymar got a big-money move to Barcelona and thus became teammates with Messi – a perfect opportunity to see whether one of the game’s greatest ever players had a point.
Despite getting 15 goals and 15 assists it was a slow opening season for Neymar at Barca, but it did nothing to stop Brazil fans from pinning all their hopes on a then 22-year-old Neymar at their home World Cup in 2014.
It appeared justified when the forward scored four goals in their three group matches as the Selecao breezed into the last-16.
Narrow wins in the last-16 and quarter-finals saw Brazil continue to dream of World Cup no.6 – but Neymar sustained a fractured vertebrae to Neymar in the quarter-final win against Colombia, meaning they’d have to do it without their star man.
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They didn’t. A 7-1 thumping at the hands of eventual winners Germany in the semi-finals saw Brazil’s hopes go up in smoke in truly spectacular fashion.
In Russia four years later, Brazil exited at the quarter-final stage with Neymar, who admittedly had only just got back from a lengthy ankle injury, scoring just twice in their five matches.
By this stage it became clear that Pele’s big claims were wide of the mark, with Neymar not reaching the same stratospheric heights as Messi.
There’s no shame in that of course but football fans are a fickle bunch. The player has even been labelled ‘overrated’ by talkSPORT’s Jason Cundy multiple times.
An Olympic gold medal and Confederations Cup are all Neymar has to show for his efforts with the national team – he was injured when Brazil won the Copa America in 2019.
However, he goes into the upcoming World Cup finals in decent shape and with 15 goals and 12 assists in 20 matches for his club this term. Things should be different for him and Brazil this time.
Brazil, now coached by Tite, are a “genuine unit playing with the spirit of the club team”, writes Gabriel Marcotti, a philosophy at odds with their approach in 2014.
“Tite has done a masterful job with Brazil, ensuring egos are checked at the entrance of the dressing room and that the Selecao is a genuine unit playing with the spirit of a club team, rather than simply as a collection of the country’s best footballers,” Marcotti wrote in ESPN.
Marcotti adds that their disappointing exit in 2018 and a loss to Argentina in the 2021 Copa America final saw the team avoid the usual recrimination at home, suggesting there’s still faith in what the manager’s doing. In fact, those two defeats are the only times Brazil have lost in competitive matches under Tite.
They’re the bookies favourites to emerge victorious in Qatar and even Messi believes Brazil are capable of going all the way.
“We always say the same great teams … but, if I have to choose, Brazil and France are the two great candidates to win the World Cup,” Messi told DIRECTV Sports, as quoted by ESPN.
“They’ve had the same group [of players] for a long time, working well. France, aside from the last Euros when they were eliminated [in the last 16] and did badly, they have some impressive players.
“They have a clear idea and the same coach [Didier Deschamps]. Brazil is a bit the same [under Tite].”
And if Brazil do go all the way, you can bet Neymar will play a huge role in it and he will be a certified national hero, even if he’s not as good as Messi.
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