Brazilian football legend Pele gestures at the end of press conference as part of France's stage of the French stage of the World Cup trophy world tour, on March 10, 2014. Credit: Getty Images
Expectations will be high for Brazil’s rising star Neymar at this year’s World Cup, but it’s too soon to set his future in stone, according to the country’s football icon Pelé.
“He’s 22 and right now, it's too early for anyone to start predicting his career,” Pelé said of striker Neymar, in an interview with Metro at the Coca-Cola FIFA World Cup trophy tour in Paris. “It’s safe to say that Neymar is incredibly talented and has a great future ahead of him.”
The Brazilian legend also spoke on the Seleção’s chances and who are the most talented players ever in this exclusive interview.
Metro: Brazilians believe that the Seleção needs to make up for 1950, when Brazil last hosted the World Cup and lost to Uruguay in the final. The team must be under a lot of pressure to do well.
Pelé: Every game comes with a lot of pressure because Brazilians always want to win! You can only imagine how they’re feeling as hosts. Obviously the players are going to be under a lot of pressure, but they’re all very experienced – I’m sure they’ll survive!
You were a 9-year-old boy when Uruguay won in 1950. You’ve said you saw your father cry that day. In what way did this moment impact your career?
I can’t answer this question because I don’t know the answer. It is true that I saw my father break down in tears. At the time, all I did was play football on the street with my friends. We didn’t have television and so the only way we could follow a game was by listening to the radio. My father was sad that day, but then again, so was everyone else at the Bauru football club. I asked him why he was crying and he told me, 'Brazil lost the World Cup.' I was a child, I had no idea how to comfort him and so I told him that I would win a World Cup – for him. I had no way of knowing that it would actually happen.
When you watch Messi and Ronaldo play, do you ever tell yourself , “I would have done that just as well”?
I think football is easier now than it was back in my day. We didn’t have yellow and red cards to protect the players. There wasn’t the same amount of media attention, and what happened on and off the pitch wasn’t scrutinized to the same degree. However, I think that nowadays players get a lot of support. But I don’t think football per se has changed. When a player is good, he’s good no matter what. People need to be aware of that.
Brazil’s footballer of the moment Neymar rose to fame while playing in Santos. Do you think he has the potential of becoming a global icon?
He’s an excellent player, but he’s 22 and, right now, he’s too young for anyone to start predicting his career. He’s preparing for his first World Cup and already is always considered to be one of the best players on the team. The expectations are high. I’m sure he’ll have an incredible career. I’ve known him since he was 17 and my son Edinho used to be his coach. I think it’s safe for me to say that Neymar is incredibly talented and has a great future ahead of him.
Some people say that goalkeepers and defenders are better now than they used to be…
There have always been good and bad goalies! In my day, there was the Soviet keeper, Lev Yashin (the only goalkeeper to ever win the Ballon d’Or, awarded in 1963 – ed.), England’s Gordon Banks or Gilmar for Brazil, and they were all excellent. There are so many players we could start comparing to the likes of Messi and myself, but the truth is people have forgotten about the Garrincha’s, Di Stéfano’s and Zidane’s of this world. Their talent isn’t comparable.
Who do you think is the best player in the world right now?
I think there are several players that are more or less on the same level. Take Xavi: despite being an excellent player, he’s never really been considered one of the best. People forget about players like him because they don’t score enough goals. The same thing happened to Beckenbauer. He was incredible, but never got the same amount of praise as Zico and myself. Today we have Messi and before him we had Maradona. It’s always going to be this way.
What are the Seleçao’s strengths and weaknesses?
The Brazilian team has always been amazing. That’s why we’ve won more World Cup titles than anyone else. But things are going to be different this time around. Brazil has always had the best attackers and for the first time ever, we’ve got a stronger defense. What we’re missing is someone like Romario or Zico. But we still have a great team.
Ever since winning the FIFA Confederations Cup last year, Brazil has been tipped to win the World Cup. But the favorite team rarely wins. Do you think that they would have been better off as the underdogs?
There’s no denying that winning the FIFA Confederations Cup has helped in terms of boosting our confidence. Beating Spain, which I believe to be the best team in the world, definitely helped.
Birth: October 23, 1940, in Três Corações, Brazil
Name: Edson Arantes do Nascimento, popularly known as Pelé. Nickname as 'O Rei' (The King)
World Cup stats: Four World Cups, Won three (1958, 1962, 1970). Scored 12 goals in 14 games.
Clubs: Santos (1956-1974), New York Cosmos (1975-1977)
World record for most professional career goals: 1,281 goals in 1,363 games.
Quote: "I was born to play football, just like Beethoven was born to write music and Michelangelo was born to paint."
Endorsements: Earns $30 million a year from endorsements and his businesses. Past endorsements and partnerships includes Time Warner, MasterCard, Procter & Gamble, Pizza Hut, Pepsi, UNICEF... and most infamously, the anti-impotency drug Viagra.