NEYMAR has said that Qatar 2022 will probably be his last World Cup.
He will only be 34 when 2026 comes round, but the mental strain is proving too much.
There is an eerie echo of Pele in all of this. After falling to injury in the early stages of 1962 and being kicked out of 1966, Pele was adamant that he would not play Mexico 70.
He relented, of course, and left the global stage on a high. He would have been approaching 34 at the time of the 1974 World Cup. But nothing, not musical pleas or government campaigns, would change his mind.
Pele remains Brazil’s all time top scorer – a remarkable achievement. South American sides have had many more games since the current marathon World Cup qualification format was introduced in 1996.
With the lone exception of Brazil, all of the South American top scorers are current or recently retired players.
And Pele, too, will almost certainly be overtaken by Neymar – perhaps in the course of the Qatar World Cup. This will seem like sacrilege to some.
But it will be much easier to swallow if Neymar can lead Brazil to their first World Cup triumph in twenty years.
The air of permanent adolescent makes it hard to believe, but the Paris Saint Germain star will be approaching 31 at Qatar 2022 – almost to the day the age that Pele was when he bowed out of international football with a pair of friendlies in 1971.
It is an uncanny statistic that highlights the difference in the two careers – and the difficulties of trying to follow in Pele’s footsteps.
Pele at almost 31 had done it all. He had won the World Cup three times. A brilliant teenager in 1958 and as a mature genius in 1970.
True, injury prevented him doing much in 1962, which is a massive shame. Back then he was at the peak of his powers – demonstrated clearly while playing for Santos in the second leg of the Club World Cup at the end of that year.
The competition, still in its early years, was taken extremely seriously.
And after only losing 3-2 in Brazil, Benfica of Portugal considered themselves as favourites back in Lisbon.
Pele ran riot, scoring and making the goals that put Santos five nil up.
In contrast, the World Cup has been cruel to Neymar. Just too young for 2010, he was forced out of 2014 by injury and, antics aside, did as well in 2018 as could have been expected on his recovery from a lengthy lay-off.
He was also injured for the 2019 Copa America and missed Brazil’s triumph.
The 2013 Confederations Cup and Olympic gold three years later are scant consolation.
Qatar 2022 will define his international career. And the problem is that the bar set by Pele’s generation is so high.
As far as the Brazilian public are concerned, there are only two possible outcomes in a World Cup; either Brazil win, or they lose.
It is a harsh perspective on a 32-team competition, but that is how it is. And, to go into the gallery of genuine greats, Neymar will have to win.
It is hardly a surprise, then, that he is feeling the strain.
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