PARIS (AP) — Pele is counting on Neymar to lead Brazil to World Cup victory and erase the painful memory of the last time the football-mad country hosted the tournament.
Considered by many to be world's best player, Pele was only 9 years old when Brazil lost to Uruguay in the final match of the 1950 World Cup. Pele then led Brazil to the title eight years later, when he was 17, and again in 1962 and 1970.
With Brazil hosting the tournament this year, the pressure is on the 22-year-old Neymar, who scored a hat trick last week in a friendly against South Africa. "Neymar is a great player. I know him very well, because he played for Santos and my son was goalkeeper there, and then coached in the youth teams," the 73-year-old Pele said a news conference at Paris City Hall, where the World Cup trophy has been on display since Sunday.
"I think the pressure you speak of exists. What's important is that he plays for Barcelona and the fact he left Brazil means that he gained in experience." After a difficult start to his career in Spain, Neymar has shown glimpses of his potential, scoring a hat trick in the Champions League against Celtic and a further seven goals in 20 league games.
Pele thinks leaving the comfort zone of Santos will prove to serve Neymar, and Brazil. "In Europe it's more difficult and it's been a great experience for him to leave Brazil. The six months have been a great opportunity for him," Pele said through a translator. "So he will go to Brazil having gained in experience. But the pressure won't just be on Neymar, it will be on the whole of the Brazil team."
But much of the weight of a nation's expectation will rest on the slender shoulders of Neymar, who has scored 30 goals in 47 matches for his country. "It's going to be very hard. Brazil has a real football history. The only World Cup held in Brazil was when we lost against Uruguay, so the Brazilians still remember that," said Pele, who scored 77 goals in 92 games for Brazil. "It will be our chance for revenge. I really hope the final is against France and I really want to beat France. It would be great because France has beaten Brazil the last three times they've played in the World Cup."
Pele's mesmerizing performance in 1958 thrust him into the spotlight and, in a career where he scored more than 1,000 goals — most of them for Santos — he went on to become the game's first genuine superstar.
Still, that 2-1 loss to Uruguay in 1950 in front of 200,000 disillusioned fans at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro haunts him. "The first World Cup memory I have is not the best, I remember hearing my father crying," Pele said. "The idea is to wipe away that memory."