In triumph or tragedy, Neymar is no stranger to shedding a few tears on the football pitch.
The enigmatic Brazilian wasn’t the only one crying after steering Santos to the 2011 Copa Libertadores title with a decisive goal in the final. In the stands of Sao Paulo’s Pacaembu, Pele – who was in the previous Santos team to win the continental title – looked on with misty eyes.
As the enormity of his first goal against Bolivia, his 78th for Brazil in an official setting, began to sink in, Neymar welled up once more. Yet, Pele was not part of the electric atmosphere in Belem. At the age of 82, the man simply known as O Rei, the King, passed away in December 2022, three weeks after Neymar equalled his record as the all-time top scorer for Brazil’s men’s team.
Here’s how Neymar broke Pele’s record.
A hush briefly descended upon the deafening crowd in Para as Neymar began his circuitous run-up for a first-half penalty. Yet the stands erupted in a low roar of disapproval as Bolivia’s goalkeeper Guillermo Viscarra had the temerity to save Neymar’s limp spot kick.
With an hour on the clock and Brazil already 3-0 up, Neymar swept in his record-breaking goal from open play. Brazil’s number 10 had been denied by the crossbar before completing his brace with a volley which squirmed beneath Viscarra’s gloves in stoppage time, taking his official total to 79 international goals.
Neymar needed 125 matches to better Pele’s tally which he set in 1971. The King racked up his haul of 77 in 92 official caps but there is some debate regarding those figures.
When the president of Brazil’s FA (CBF) Ednaldo Rodrigues handed Neymar a plaque after the victory over Bolivia, he congratulated the forward for becoming “the all-time top goal-scorer for Brazil in matches against national teams”.
The key line there is the distinction of “matches against national teams”. According to the CBF, Pele played 113 games for Brazil and scored an unrivalled 95 goals. However, this discrepancy comes from friendlies staged between Brazil’s national team and various club sides put on by the CBF to exploit Pele’s stardust.
Pele’s Foundation praised Neymar with the same caveat. “Congratulations, Neymar Jr, for surpassing the King in goals for the Brazilian National Team in official FIFA matches,” the post read. “Surely Pele is applauding you today!”
Neymar, for what it’s worth, is not claiming superiority over Pele. “I never imagined reaching this record,” he said after the Bolivia game. “I’m no better than Pele or any other player for the national team.”
The CBF and FIFA can argue about whether a friendly against a select XI from Minas Gerais should count towards Pele’s tally, but no criteria for official matches will help him – or Neymar – surpass Marta’s scoring record for Brazil.
Arguably the greatest women’s footballer of all time, Marta racked up an astonishing 115 goals in 171 matches for a national team that was repeatedly hamstrung by their own federation.
Marta was occasionally referred to as “Pele with skirts” while she dazzled the world of women’s football. It was a comparison that Pele agreed with but when their respective goal records are stacked up against one another, it does Brazil’s overall leading scorer a disservice.
Valdir Peres remembers Neymar’s father charging into the hotel that his team, Uniao, were staying at declaring that his newborn son would be “the best Brazilian football player ever”. Neymar Sr can make a case for his prediction with Junior’s goal tally but the national team’s performances have not helped his proclamation.
The summer of 2013 was the first of three competitions in four years hosted by an economically crippled Brazil with Neymar as the poster boy.
It all began so well. Neymar spanked an outrageous volley into the top corner after three minutes of the Confederations Cup. With Neymar the undisputed star, bouncing off a rugged number 9 in the form of Fred, Brazil won the warmup for the main event in 2014.
It’s little wonder that Neymar ended the World Cup with a broken vertebra after carrying Brazil on his back to the semi-finals. In his absence, Brazil were thrashed 7-1 by Germany. Two years later, the Selecao faced off against Germany in the same stadium in the gold medal match for the 2016 Olympics.
This time Neymar was not only fit but fully firing. The Olympic team’s captain scored in every knockout round, including a free-kick lasered into the top corner in the final. Maximilian Meyer’s equaliser forced a penalty shootout which Neymar won with the decisive kick.
There were fleeting flashes of Neymar’s undisputed brilliance in both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups but he never personally made it beyond the quarter-finals of the global tournament which Pele won a record three times.
Robinho, another prodigy from Santos, lamented the expectation that has clouded Neymar’s career since his skills stood out on Gremetal’s futsal courts. “Every young, black player who appears at Santos is called Pele,” he sighed, “but people need to know how to differentiate that because Pele was a myth.” Well, Neymar has now outscored the myth.
Neymar’s Brazil goals by year