Brazil’s 20-year-old samba sensation Neymar is a rock star in shin guards.
Clearly the premier footballer at the London Olympics, the electrifying striker entered the tournament surrounded by unchecked hype. Legendary Brazilian star Pele set the tone by declaring the Mohawk-ed wunderkind as the world’s best player — ahead of reigning two-time FIFA Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi.
“Some are saying that Messi is better than Pele. Well, he has to be better than Neymar first, which he isn’t yet,” said Pele, speaking at the centennial celebration of his former club and Neymar’s current club, Santos.
From there, Argentine icon Diego Maradona retorted: “My God, that is just stupid. … Maybe Neymar is the best player in the world, but only if you say that Messi is from a different planet.”
Despite what appeared to be premature praise for the then-teenaged talent, Neymar has since found a way to exceed expectations at the Games of the XXX Olympiad.
A yellow blur with the ball, Neymar’s pace, skill and imagination on the pitch have led to two goals, one assist and countless breathtaking runs en route to Group stage wins over Egypt, Belarus and New Zealand.
Heading into the knockout stage of the Olympics, Neymar is aiming to match Messi, who led Argentina to gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. A win in the under-23 tournament (which also allows for three over-age exemptions) would be Brazil’s first-ever gold medal.
Brazil has won five World Cups (2002, 1994, 1970, 1962, 1958) and will serve as the host country for both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. But the nation has failed to take the top prize in the Olympics, with only a pair of silvers (1988, 1984) and bronzes (2008, 1996) to show.
This year, the “Selecao” is on a mission to drape Olympic gold over their signature canary yellow jerseys. With Neymar leading an attack that also includes Chelsea midfielder Oscar, Real Madrid defender Marcelo, winger Hulk and defender-captain Thiago Silva, Brazil is the overwhelming favorite to win it all in London.
Quarterfinals (Saturday, Aug. 4)
Japan vs. Egypt
Mexico vs. Senegal
Brazil vs. Honduras
Great Britain vs. South Korea
Semifinals (Tuesday, Aug. 7)
Bronze Medal Match (Friday, Aug. 10)
Gold Medal Match (Saturday, Aug. 11)