With his hat-trick against Peru in the World Cup qualifier, Neymar took his national team goal tally to 64. He surpassed his country’s celebrated striker Ronaldo (62) and is now just 13 goals behind the legendary Pele. Considering that he’s only 28, it would be surprising if he doesn’t eclipse Pele in the imminent future. However, for all his skills, trickery and numbers, he is not counted among the greatest of all time, a rarefied space Pele and Ronaldo inhabit.
The nimble-footed Brazilian combines European technicality and Brazilian flair in his play. He is exceptional with both feet, has a terrific header, scores from free-kicks and can conjure a moment of magic from nothing. Lionel Messi considers him his spiritual successor and the future talisman at Barcelona. But he has his flaws. The Brazilian star has a tendency to squander straightforward chances. He is also prone to tumble down at the slightest of touches, forget a tackle. So far he has failed to make an impact on big games, like the quarterfinal against Belgium in the World Cup or the UEFA Champions League final against Bayern Munich. This is the biggest hole in his CV and also the reason he hasn’t been as popular as Ronaldo or Pele on terraces in Brazil. Historically, Brazil judges its footballers not by their club stature but with the number of World Cups they have won.
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Apart from being a treble World Cup winner, Pele has a better game-to-goal ratio than Neymar. Pele’s scoring rate is 0.89 per game, while Neymar’s is 0.62 and Ronaldo 0.63. But there are caveats. What sets Ronaldo and Pele apart is their scoring sprees in World Cups. Ronaldo has belted 15 in 19 games, Pele 12 in 14 and Neymar just six in 10 games. In both World Cups, Neymar was relatively un-influential. One of the enduring images of the 2018 World Cup was the tattered socks of Neymar, with deep stud marks, after the quarterfinal against Belgium. Then to his fault, he has a tendency to fall down, or dive, at the slightest of touches while both Ronaldo and Pele had robust runs and could barge through defence lines. Neymar needs to burn his crybaby image somehow to gain the stature that Pele or Ronaldo enjoy.
No. Pele has donned various roles. An out-and-out striker, he also featured in the role of the more creative No 10. At times he was also the attacking tip of a diamond midfield. Ronaldo was chiefly deployed as a no-nonsense centre-forward, the near-extinct fox in the box types. Intelligent, instinctive and intuitive, he was a product of the time when Brazilian football was busy ditching the idea of romantic football and embracing pragmatism. In that sense, Neymar is a throwback, his game closer to Pele than Ronaldo. Yet, he operates in different spaces than Pele.
Neymar is essentially a left-winger, whose primary duty is to feed the centre forward or the striker, a role he accomplished efficiently with Barcelona. So he isn’t just a goal-scorer but also a goal-creator. It’s where he outshines Pele and Ronaldo. Neymar has made an astonishing 43 assists, which is marginally better than Pele (unofficially 35) and streets ahead of Ronaldo (12). Meanwhile, Neymar plies his trade at a time when forwards are expected to track back and defend or press. A forward is expected to not just score goals, but create space and lay on chances for others. Ronaldo never had to do it, while Pele did so intermittently.
Yes, it could also be argued that Neymar doesn’t have the creative company that Pele and Ronaldo enjoyed. The likes of Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus are excellent accomplices but their quality pales when you compare them to Ronaldo’s peers like Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Juninho or Kaka. Or Pele’s sidekicks, like Garrincha, Vava or Jairzinho.
Nothing but win the World Cup and score goals in the knockouts. He can take solace as well as inspiration from Ronaldo’s book. Condemned for his middling performance in the1998 final, he bounced back superbly to plot Brazil’s fourth, and to date, the last World Cup in 2002. He was the sole goal-scorer in the edgy semifinal against Turkey as well as the cagey final against Germany. If Neymar could replicate the Ronaldo of 2002, he could well be stamped with footballing immortality by his countrymen. Only then shall gloss dwell on his magnificent numbers.