Being lucky enough to see one of the top ten players of all time is special: Alfredo Di Stefano in the 1950s, Pele in the 1960s, Cruyff in the 70s, Maradona in the 80s, the original Ronaldo in the 90s. Being able to watch two at once, following each other’s trajectories step by step and driving one another to greater and greater heights, has been obscene.
Neymar has always had ambitions to join Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in that list of immortals, but there is barely enough room for two, let alone three. But with Ronaldo already 33 and Messi turning 31 later this month, now is the time for 26-year-old Neymar to begin his reign as the undisputed greatest player in the world.
Everything he needs is there. The Brazilian is already joint-third on his country’s list of all-time goalscorers, level with Romario on 55 goals with only Ronaldo and Pele ahead of him. His goals-per-game is very fractionally better than Il Fenomono’s, and World Cup-winning legends Dunga, Cafu and Romario have all previously tipped Neymar to eventually break Pele’s record of 77 international goals (thankfully, those strikes are somewhat easier to verify than those Pele claims to have scored at club level).
If he maintains his current rate of scoring for the Selecao, Neymar would break Pele’s in his 121st cap – ambitious, but definitely achievable given that he has already amassed 85 international appearances. Comparing players from different eras may be a fool’s errand for myriad reasons, but it would be a hell of a statement and a remarkable achievement nonetheless.
Recovering from injury or not, there has never been a better stage for any player to move firmly into the spotlight as the one Neymar enters over the next month. He is, after all, playing for the bookies’ favourites, who will be hell-bent on redemption after their humiliating 7-1 defeat to Germany in 2014 – a game that caused Neymar to switch off his TV in disgust to go and play poker instead, having picked up an injury late in the quarter-final win over Colombia.
Not that what Football365 writers say should be the basis for any of your life decisions, but half of us have picked Brazil to win the tournament, half of us have tipped Neymar to win the Golden Boot, and two-thirds of us have anointed him the Golden Ball recipient in waiting. The burden of expectation lays heavily on the Brazilian’s shoulders, not least because nobody wants to upset our fine upstanding editor by ruining one of her most confident predictions.
Last summer Neymar moved from Barcelona to PSG to play himself out of Messi’s shadow and stake his claim to be the next non-Messi-or-Ronaldo winner of the Ballon d’Or. Playing in Ligue 1 may count against him on that front, regardless of his strike rate of 0.93 goals per 90 minutes in the half-season he completed before breaking his foot in February; so there is a sense that to truly stake his claim as one of the all-time greats, rather than the occasional third-best player of his generation, Neymar must perform this summer.
The question now is which player turns up in Russia: Will it be the Neymar who scored just three times in eight games for Brazil in 2017, failing to register against Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile and England? Or is it to be the Neymar who scored more than an international goal for every 90 minutes he played in 2014 (15 in 14, including four in five at the World Cup) and has scored 1.4 goals per 90 for Brazil so far this year?
Get it right, and this summer is a golden – and quite possibly the only – opportunity for Neymar to set him up for five or six years as the world’s greatest, put himself firmly on course to eclipse Pele, and finally achieve something even Messi hasn’t done already: leading the line as his country romps to World Cup glory.
No pressure then, pal.