Neymar on path to greatness with Brazil
SAO PAULO (AP) Despite being only 22 years old, Neymar has already done enough to be ranked among Brazil's greatest players of all time.
If he can keep it up, not even the great Pele may be standing in front of him when the youngster hangs up his boots.
Brazil's most promising player in decades is living up to expectations and has set himself on a path to greatness. He is enchanting with his brilliance and putting up numbers that few others have achieved at his age.
He is already Brazil's fifth-greatest scorer with 40 goals with the national team, and is well on pace to surpass Pele's record of 77 as the nation's most prolific scorer.
If Neymar keeps scoring like this, he may break Pele's record before he turns 28, in 2020. Pele was only two months older than Neymar when he netted his 40th goal. Only Pele and Romario have a better goal average than Neymar with the national team.
''I am very happy and proud of the progress of Neymar since he moved to play in Europe,'' Pele told The Associated Press in an email. ''This season, he keeps proving that he's one of the best players in the world. His growth as a player is fantastic and very beneficial for the Selecao.''
Among the few Brazilians who have more goals than Neymar are Zico, Romario and Ronaldo, longtime heroes in the land of soccer.
Neymar reached his 40th goal after scoring four times in a friendly against Japan last month, and in the coming weeks he has a chance to move closer to Zico's mark of 48 goals when Brazil plays friendlies against Turkey and Austria. Romario has 55 goals in official matches with the Selecao, while Ronaldo had 62.
''We both came from Santos FC where we developed the same set of skills: creativity, passing, clinical finishing and, of course, insatiable hunger for goals,'' Pele told the AP.
While Pele spent most of his career in Brazil, Neymar was quick to move to European soccer. He went straight from Santos to Barcelona, and it didn't take long for him to start succeeding alongside the likes of Lionel Messi.
In Brazil, many say Neymar already has what it takes to become the best player in the world.
''Maybe it won't happen this year, but by next year he will be named the best in the world, I'm certain,'' former Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira told Brazilian media recently. ''He's already an idol.''
Neymar had just started to catch everyone's attention when Zico, the star of Brazil's 1982 World Cup team, said the youngster could become as good as Pele or Diego Maradona.
''He does things that Maradona was never able to do,'' Zico told local channel Esporte Interativo a few years ago. ''Maradona was as great as he was thanks to what he could do with his left foot, but he was never able to use his right leg effectively. Neymar has this ability to play well using both of his legs.''
But even Zico pointed to some of Neymar's weaknesses at the time, including his less-than superb heading skills, an area where Pele thrived. Neymar also was criticized because of his dives and for failing to perform well with the national team early in his career.
He has steadily improved in most areas and is a much more mature player today. Neymar has been diving less often and is behaving better both on and off the field. A season playing alongside the best in the world in Europe helped him progress rapidly.
He also improved with the national team, becoming Brazil's captain and the player carrying the fans' hopes for a sixth world title.
''I don't know what my limit is,'' Neymar said after he surpassed Bebeto as Brazil's fifth-best scorer. ''I'm not thinking about surpassing Pele, that's not my goal. My goal is to keep scoring to help the national team and to help my teammates.''
It's not only the goals that make Neymar a special player.
He lacks the physical strength that Pele used to have, and also doesn't seem to have the same above-average quick-thinking of the three-time World Cup champion, but Neymar has similar light-footed skills and uses his incredible speed to make up for some of his weaknesses. Like Pele, Ronaldo and Romario, he also has outstanding precision on his finishes.
Neymar does have some advantages over players such as Ronaldo and Romario, who became stars mostly because of their goal-scoring ability. Neymar is not only about scoring goals, he is more of a playmaker, and uses his ball skills and speed to create scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. Ronaldo used mostly his strength to get past defenders, while Romario was more about using good positioning inside the area and precise strikes.
Contrary to a classic No. 10 such as Zico, who had outstanding ball control and was always trying to put his teammates in position to score, Neymar is constantly challenging defenders and using his dribbling skills to get near the opponent's area.
Although it remains too early to tell how Neymar will be compared to other Brazilian greats, it's likely that his success will depend largely on whether he can win with Brazil and lead the five-time world champion back to its glory days.
Pele had already won two World Cups by the time he was 22. Neymar missed out on a chance to win his first world title thanks in part to a back injury that ruled him out of some of this year's tournament in Brazil.
And there is always the chance that Neymar may never be as good as everyone expects, as happened to Robinho, who also was touted as a promising star when he transferred to European soccer as a 21-year-old. Also a Santos player, Robinho moved to Real Madrid instead of Barcelona, but never played up to expectations.
He played in two World Cups and remains with the national team, but never became the type of star that Brazilians had hoped for after he started making headlines as a teenager.
Only time will tell if Neymar will be more like Robinho or more like Pele.
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