IT will drive the haters mad, but it is going to happen.
Neymar was on target in both Brazil’s World Cup qualifiers earlier this month, and on Sunday in their Copa America opener against Venezuela.
Those three goals take him up to 67 – only 10 short of the total that Pele managed in official games.
With so much international football coming up – another six matches in the Copa plus 12 more World Cup qualifiers to squeeze in before the end of March – it is entirely possible that Neymar will overtake the great man before Qatar 2022. Which goes to show the limitations of statistics.
Forty of Neymar’s international goals have come in friendlies – 42 if we include a few matches a decade ago against an Argentina side exclusively made up of home-based players.
A trophy was at stake, but the games were glorified friendlies.
But it is not really Neymar’s fault that so many of his goals have come in friendlies.
He first played for Brazil just after the 2010 World Cup – a time when, as 2014 hosts, Brazil had years of non competitive matches ahead of him. He has an Olympic title to his name, but his only senior honour is the semi-serious Confederations Cup.
This current tournament is his best chance of landing the Copa America – he played it as a kid in 2011, and picked up a suspension during Brazil’s ill -fated 2015 campaign.
He sat out the centenary version in 2016, giving preference to the Olympics, and was forced to pull out of 2019 through injury.
The World Cup has been just as cruel. His 2014 competition was halted by serious injury, and in Russia 2018 he did as well as could be expected after rushing back from a long term lay off.
All of this makes next year’s World Cup absolutely crucial to his career. By the time 2026 comes around he will be 34, and surely in physical decline.
But in Qatar he should be at his peak – not least because the tournament will be played in the middle of the European season, greatly reducing the chances of end of campaign burn out.
It is in Qatar where Neymar will be expected to rise to meet the expectations that have marked him as tight as any defender. In the 2022 World Cup Neymar will be expected to live up to the standard set by Pele.
None of these doubts ever dogged Pele’s career. There was never any question of whether or not he was really all that good.
True, there was a lobby in Brazil pushing for him to be dropped going into the 1970 World Cup. But only because – very wrongly as it proved – they feared that he was no longer able to tip the balance at the top level.
He had shown as a 17 year old in the 1958 World Cup that he was something very special. After that no one could seriously claim that he was more hype than substance.
Indeed, had he not been injured early in the 1962 campaign, then that second World Cup could have been the definitive statement of his genius.
It is a statement of that genius that Pele is still Brazil’s top scorer. The South American sides play much more international football these days.
Almost all the country’s top scorers are current players – Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao Garcia, Salomon Rondon. There is no one from Pele’s era – except Pele.
The numbers say that Neymar is well on the way to overtaking him. The truth – and Neymar knows it, is that in comparison with Pele he is still on the early rungs of the ladder.