RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, July 1 – It could be the legend truly began here. Brazilian starlet Neymar has had to put up with the billing “the next Pele” almost since he made his debut for his country in 2010 in the unlikely surroundings of East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Needless to say, the man born Neymar da Silva Santos Junior, scored and, in a country which demands footballing heros, expectations soared.
“We played even better than expected,” beamed Neymar after Sunday’s Confederations Cup demolition job on world champions Spain.
“I am really happy. We made a lot of people happy, but we must keep our feet on the ground,” said the star.
Pele may have set the bar impossibly high – one thing Neymar can never do is win a World Cup winners medal at the age of 17 – at that age he was just breaking into the side at Santos, Pele’s old club.
And he also was unable to help the auriverde break their Olympic duck at last year’s London games.
Yet as of Sunday, the young starlet born in Mogo Das Cruzes in Sao Paulo can point to an international winners medal after a pulsating showing against Spain where he scored a superlative goal on the stroke of half-time before a wonderful dummy allowed Fred to apply the coup de grace.
And the way the 21-year-old dismantled an admittedly below-par Spanish backline suggests the youngster does have the self-belief to at least to aspire to the Pele mantle.
The man himself said before the event that the current squad “are not good enough” to win top prizes, but with such outlandish talent at their disposal the Selecao will now start as favourites at a home World Cup next year.
By then he will have tasted the hard school that is La Liga with Barcelona, where he will start alongside Lionel Messi in a pairing that, if it works in tandem, will scare the living daylights out of everybody else in Spain and across Europe.
Despite signs of a suspect temperament early in his career – and a tendency to go to ground too easily, a criticism made only last week by Uruguay’s Diego Lugano – Neymar has been maturing rapidly and in the past two weeks has slipped into the playmaker’s role with some aplomb.
He arrived at the event on the back of a nine-game goalscoring drought but then delivered a tremendous finish inside the opening three minutes as the hosts started off their campaign with a 3-0 success over Japan in Brasilia.
Another goal and an assist duly followed against Mexico before a belter of a freekick against Italy.
By then it was clear that some alchemy was in the air as his at first glance unlikely partnership with bustling centre forward Fred – much loved of coach Luiz Felipe Scolari – began to pay handsome dividends
Life was tougher for the spiky-haired Neymar in a seat-of-the-pants semi-final win over Uruguay but Fred and Paulinho assumed the goalscoring responsibilities that day and then against Spain Neymar and Fred dovetailed superbly.
In the process he bamboozled men such as Andres Iniesta and Xavi, who will be teammates at the Nou Camp next season.
“I repect and admire them very much. But today I was representing my country and family and had to give them a hard time!”
Neymar says starring in La Liga could take him to a higher level.
“I am going to one of the biggest clubs in the world – I hope I adapt as quickly as possible and that next year I can have a great World Cup,” said Neymar.
Neymar was coy as to his feelings on the protests sweeping Brazil and which were going on outside the Maracana stadium even as the team were taking the Spanish apart.
“It is difficult to talk about the fights outside – it is bad and people can get injured. The celebrations were for those inside the stadium,” said the 2011 South American Footballer of the Year.
However high he flies after Sunday, even before this triumph US sports magazine Sports Pro ranked him as the sports star with the most potential ahead even of Messi and golfer Rory McLlroy.
“That’s just part of the job. It is a responsibility to bear – but a nice one,” said Neymar on learning of that praise.