Pele unsure how Neymar will react to Fifa World Cup pressure
BARCELONA // At just 22 years of age, Barcelona forward Neymar will carry the hopes of 200 million Brazilians on his shoulders when the country attempts to win a sixth Fifa World Cup.
The role of World Cup hosts is daunting. The raucous support and enormous pressure from supporters of the most storied country in the history of the game will be on display when Brazil start their first Group A game against Croatia on June 12.
Neymar da Silva Santos Junior grew up in a country, however, that never got over a defeat by Uruguay that cost the nation the World Cup trophy when they last hosted the tournament in 1950.
Of the 23 Brazilian players picked to put that right this year, it is Neymar who will carry the greatest burden.
Brazilian World Cup winning sides have always possessed a goalscorer in top form – from a 17-year-old Pele in 1958, to Garrincha in 1962, Jairzinho in 1970, Romario in 1994 and most recently Ronaldo in 2002.
Neymar followed in Pele’s footsteps at the Santos club and wears the No 10 jersey that Pele did before him. The foundations of a legend are already there.
He joined Brazil’s most titled club in 2003 and made his debut for them in 2009 making an instant impact as the country’s young player of the year.
Neymar finished the 2010 season with 42 goals in 60 games as Santos secured the Copa do Brasil and domestic Sao Paulo state championship.
In 2011, Neymar played the central role as Santos took the Copa Libertadores and the state championship again. Barcelona beat Santos 4-0 in the Club World Cup final that year and it already seemed a formality that Neymar would head to Spain.
Neymar already has an impressive tally of 30 goals in 47 international appearances and shone as La Selecao prepared in perfect fashion for the big occasion by winning the dress-rehearsal of the Confederations Cup last June.
However, an unconvincing first season in Europe has thrown up questions over whether he is ready to lead Brazil to World Cup victory.
“This is Neymar’s first World Cup and nobody knows exactly what is going to happen. It is a big responsibility for him,” Pele said in a recent interview with Agence France-Presse.
Neymar’s emotional stability heading into the tournament at such a young age has not been helped by negative headlines surrounding his transfer from Santos to Barcelona last year.
A company owned by the player’s father was paid €40 million (Dh202m) in the deal, which eventually led to Barca president Sandro Rosell resigning in January and the club being charged with tax fraud.
However, Pele is among many who believe the pressure and expectation of playing for one of the world’s biggest clubs will help him at the World Cup.
“The best thing for Neymar was to come to play in Spain, to play in Europe, the best thing for Brazil. It was like him going off to university for six months and then coming back to play with Brazil, because then they come with more experience. That was fantastic for him.”
Barca legend Johan Cruyff, an outspoken critic of Neymar’s signing for the club, has also been left unconvinced of his ability to take the World Cup by storm.
“People mustn’t forget he is a lad of 22 – a lad of 22 is not yet an adult. Nobody who is 21 or 22 years old can be seen as a god,” he said.
Yet, should he provide the magic to propel Luis Felipe Scolari’s side to victory, he will certainly become the new messiah of Brazilian football.
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Published: May 11, 2014 04:00 AM