Last updated on December 9th, 2022 at 07:10 PM
Despite Brazil’s shock exit on penalties, Neymar Jr has sensationally equalled Pelé’s record with a stunning extra-time goal against Croatia in Qatar and become his country’s leading men’s goal scorer.
The nutmegs are still there, and so are the cheeky flicks, the incredible control in tight spaces and the ability to wriggle his way out of what seems a dead end. Goals sometimes seem like an added extra for Neymar Jr – yet he’s now Brazil’s joint all-time leading men’s goal scorer.
Heading into his third major global tournament, he knew that two more goals would bring him level to Pelé’s record of 77. Score three times, and he’d be in a league of his own.
After a frustrating injury in the group stages, he came alive in the knockout phase, with the goals coming against South Korea in the Round of 16 stage and then Croatia in the last eight with a superb jinking run and shot in the penalty area.
Already one of the undisputed greats of the Brazilian game, the new goals record should cement Neymar Jr’s cult status alongside Pelé, Ronaldo and Romário. Something many feel he was always destined to achieve since making his mark on the beautiful game.
Neymar Jr needed only 28 minutes of his international debut to get off the mark as a teenager back in August 2010. Having been left out of Dunga’s squad for the 2010 showpiece in South Africa, the 18-year-old opened his account with a powerful header to set Brazil on the way to a 2-0 friendly win over the United States.
Since then, he’s been knocking them in for fun. Many of his goals had hints of the futsal he played for much of his childhood, which ingrained in him the close control and the deft, almost delicate finishes.
You could see that as early as his first competitive international, against Ecuador in 2011, when Ganso turned and slipped a pass through a pack of Ecuador players and found Neymar Jr, who lifted it past the goalkeeper.
He scored one of the cheekiest goals you’re likely to see in a friendly match against the United States in 2015. Having received a diagonal pass from Lucas Moura inside the area, he skipped past two defenders with some nimble footwork.
He feigned to shoot into the far corner but instead slotted his shot inside the near post, leaving three defenders and the goalkeeper completely wrong-footed.
His effort in the friendly win over Bolivia in 2013 also stands out, as it’s the only time that he and Ronaldinho combined for a goal. Although their careers overlapped, the duo only played together for Brazil on 10 occasions, all of them friendlies.
There have been a few from direct free kicks and the odd flying volley, but his trademark goal is when he runs at the defence and beats the goalkeeper with a deft finish.
Arguably the best of all his Brazil goals came against Paraguay in 2017, which clinched Brazil’s place at the following year’s tournament in Russia.
Found by Marcelo deep inside the Brazil half, he charged down the touchline, burst past two opponents, advanced into the penalty area, and, as three defenders closed in, he clipped a shot into the net with the help of a deflection. The run was officially measured at 64m.
This was Neymar Jr’s third time experiencing the biggest tournament in world football, and the emergence of Vinícius Júnior and Richarlison as reliable scorers means there has been less responsibility on his shoulders.
He’s now seen as a leader in the group and is both an idol and mentor for the younger players. “Neymar has always done everything to help me on and off the pitch,” said Vinícius Júnior.
Having recovered from an ankle injury at the start of the year he was as fit as ever and raring to go heading into Qatar, and has benefited from playing in a more central position.
Until 2018, he effectively played as a winger for Brazil, stationed wide on the left of a four-person midfield. Part of his role was to drop back, look for the ball and begin his runs from deep.
But following the tournament, Brazil coach Tite decided it was time to move him into the middle. Tite appreciated that Neymar Jr had matured and preferred to give him a role much closer to that of a traditional South American number 10.
The idea was to give him more freedom to roam around that area of the pitch and make him less tied to the touchline.
“Neymar is never playing on the wing. No. He belongs in the middle,” said Tite in September 2022. “Neymar playing on the flank is something from 2014 or 2018, or when he was at Barcelona.”
Neymar Jr has always had a good relationship with Pelé, especially as they are both products of Santos, where Pelé spent almost his entire career.
When Neymar Jr scored his first-ever professional goal as a 17-year-old, he made a point of celebrating by imitating Pelé’s trademark punch in the air.
Three years ago, he visited Pelé in a hospital in Paris where he was being treated for an infection. Pelé has said he’s happy for his record to be broken.
“Every time I see this boy, he’s smiling,” he said of Neymar Jr during the Copa América last year. “It’s impossible not to smile back. It’s contagious.
I, like all Brazilians, am always happy when I see him playing football. I’m rooting for him to get there with the same joy I’ve had since I saw him play for the first time.”