Neymar: Can the Brazil Star Match Pele, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho?

Tony MabertContributor ISeptember 5, 2011

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 27: Neymar of Brazil celebrates scoring the opening goal during the International friendly match between Brazil and Scotland at Emirates Stadium on March 27, 2011 in London, England.  (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

Any new young forward who dons the famous gold-and-green jersey of Brazil has to deal not only with the expectations of the fifth-largest country on Earth, but also the heavy weight of that nation's glorious football history upon their shoulders.

Pele, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho have all lifted the World Cup in the colours of the Selecao and taken their respective places among the pantheon of the greatest footballers ever to play the game.

In recent times, many forwards have come and gone without fully filling those shoes, such as the functional Luis Fabiano, the beastly Julio Baptista and party-liaison Adriano.

But, in Neymar da Silva Santos Junior, Brazil have a player in whom they can believe will lead them back to the top of the world.

Neymar will be 22 years old when the World Cup comes to Brazil, and the stage is set for him to join the exalted list of the host nation's all-time heroes.

At only 19, the Santos striker is already an international star, a mainstay in the national team chased by most of the biggest clubs in Europe.

Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Chelsea and Manchester City all made enquiries or approaches for the Mohawk-sporting forward during the summer transfer window, but Santos succeeded in hanging onto their prize asset for a while longer at least, and were wise to do so.

Neymar has already emulated the club's greatest ever player, Pele, by helping the club win the Campeonato Paulista and the Copa Libertadores at such a young age.

While he is never likely to match Pele's goal ratio for Santos (virtually a goal a game over the course of his 18-year career at the club), Neymar has already scored 31 goals in just 71 league appearances for the Peixe, an excellent strike rate in the modern era.

He has taken that form with him into the international arena with aplomb. After the pragmatic coach Dunga resisted intense pressure to take the prodigious talent to the 2010 World Cup, current manager Mano Menezes has been thoroughly vindicated in selecting him with a return of six goals from 10 caps.

Such a strong start to his international career while still in his teens raises plenty of hope that he can go on to better Pele's record haul of 77 goals for his country. One thing he will surely do what the great man never did is take his talents into European club football.

In doing so, he can match the achievements of another Brazil phenomenon.

Ronaldo took European football by storm virtually from the moment he joined PSV Eindhoven from Cruzeiro in 1994, and he went on to play for Barca, Inter, Real and Milan before returning to his homeland in 2009 as the World Cup's all-time top scorer and a three-time World Player of the Year.

The most natural and lethal finisher of his generation, "O Fenomeno" racked up 247 goals at club level and 62 for Brazil, second only to Pele. The fact that this was achieved despite a career blighted by serious injury only magnifies the calibre of the player.

Neymar's style and build are at odds with that of Ronaldo, the former being lean and agile at five-foot-nine and the latter a six-foot-tall unit who constantly battled with his weight.

However, he has every opportunity of turning out for one or more of those European giants if he finally makes the move across the Atlantic, while a decade of regular games for his country could well see him surpass Ronaldo's outstanding record.

The one glaring omission on Ronaldo's resume is a continental title at club level. He must be the greatest player in history never to have won the European Cup or Copa Libertadores. Neymar has already won the latter, scoring in the two-legged final victory over Uruguay's Penarol last June.

One Brazil great who can boast a Champions League medal is Ronaldinho. The son of Porto Alegre's five years at Barcelona garnered victory in Europe's premier club competition, two La Liga titles and as many World Player of the Year crowns.

His flamboyant excesses may have eventually seen him hit those heights only sporadically in his latter days at Camp Nou and at Milan, but since his move back to Brazil earlier this year, he has rediscovered plenty of his old form. Ten goals in 17 league games for Flamengo have even seen him reintroduced into the international fold by Menezes.

Of the three greats mentioned here, Neymar's style is most akin to that of Ronaldinho.

A lithe, adaptable forward blessed with outrageous skill who is equally adept at scoring goals as he is at creating them, he is a player able to operate anywhere across a front three or as the No. 10 of a conventional 4-4-1-1 formation. 

Rather than try to harness Neymar's talents into a particular role, at Santos he is allowed to let his youthful exuberance run wild as he drops deep and wide in support of strike-partner Humberlito Borges. 

The maturity that comes with experience and a move to Europe would add a measure of discipline to Neymar's game. It is that word—discipline—which may be the only factor that stops him from fulfilling his potential, emulating Ronaldinho in the wrong way.

While there has been little indication so far in his burgeoning career that that he will succumb to the off-field indulgences for which so many promising Brazilian players have fallen, Neymar will certainly benefit from the correct guidance throughout his career.

He can be hot-headed, picking up bookings at a rate akin to the rate at which he scores goals, and he has already shown a tendency to be outspoken with the media.

The next three years promise to see Neymar turn into an outright world-class player if he does not rush into a big European move, and his decision to shun Real Madrid and Chelsea over the past two years for more time in his homeland suggests that he is being well advised. 

Joining the right club at the right time should see him rise to the very top of the tree, and if the planets align for him and Brazil in 2014 then no one will be comparing Neymar to the Selecao stars of old, but talking of him as a great on his own terms.