The Greatest Soccer Player In The World (According To Pelé) Turns 21 Today
Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior -- better known simply as Neymar -- celebrates his 21st birthday today.
Known for his outlandish hairstyles, dynamic skill (that rainbow flick!), slippery dribbling and OMFG finishing ability, the young striker has grown from teenage phenomenon to the undisputed face of Brazilian soccer over the past decade.
And as the nation's first superstar to turn down the megariches of the European leagues to work his craft back home, Neymar has become a symbol of national pride for a country readying to host the next World Cup in 2014.
Oh, and no less a footballing luminary than Pelé has proclaimed he's better than Lionel Messi, who is 25.
"There's always this Maradona comparison, saying that he's better than Pelé," third-personed Pelé last April. "Now some are saying that Messi is better than Pelé. Well, he has to be better than Neymar first, which he isn't yet. He has more experience."
Ronaldinho, himself a two-time FIFA World Player of the Year, echoed the sentiment earlier this week to the Daily Mail.
"Messi for the last three or four years has been the best player in the world -- he has been at a level of consistency I don't think the world has seen before," the 32-year-old Brazilian said. "Neymar is young, though, and I can't explain how special he will become. In the next two or three seasons he will become the best player."
You think that's pressure? Check out this cover of a popular Brazilian soccer magazine from October.
The question remains: How good is he?
While the lithe goal-scorer shown incredible promise for Santos in the Brazilian first division -- look no further than this divine highlight reel -- how much can we glean from performances in an inferior domestic league? Many in fact believe Neymar should move to a European club ahead of the 2014 World Cup to cut his teeth on the sort of well-drilled, top-flight defenses he'll see when Brazil hosts the quadrennial tournament. One such opportunity, however brief, will come on Wednesday when Brazil meet England in a friendly at Wembley Stadium (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel).
Until then, he will be regarded as talented but untested, regardless of what Pelé says.
Who's better right now? You be the judge.
Bryan Armen Graham