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'You made it, boy!' - Pele's special relationship with Neymar and a bittersweet final chapter for Brazil

07:05 EAT 30/12/2022
Pele Neymar black and white
Two icons of Brazilian football, Neymar held an important personal bond with Pele that he'll cherish forever.

After Pele, the three-time World Cup winner, died in Sao Paolo aged 82 from colon cancer complications, the football world immediately paid its respects.

Neymar's tribute was especially touching. He recently levelled Pele's individual scoring record for his country, an accomplishment the icon was able to congratulate him on before his death.

In recent years, the pair had always publicly championed one another, and the World Cup marked a high point of their shared appreciation despite Pele's declining health.

Below is a look at how Pele helped guide Neymar towards greatness, their relationship and the bittersweet final chapter between them.

  • Pele with his medals.

    Neymar's tribute to Pele

    In a heartfelt tribute shared to social media on Thursday, Neymar recoginised Pele’s role in making Brazilian football an art form, an expression, a way of life for millions of kids in Sao Paulo and beyond.

    The 30-year-old posted a picture of his idol aptly adorned with a crown; Pele was nicknamed O Rei (The King) because of his brilliant and influential World Cup performances with the Selecao.

    “I would say before Pele, football was just a sport,” Neymar explained in his tribute. “Pele has changed it all. He turned football into art, into entertainment. Gave voice to the poor, blacks and mostly: Gave visibility to Brazil. Football and Brazil have raised their status thanks to the King! He's gone but his magic remains. Pele is FOREVER!!"

    The message was poignant in a year Brazilian players boldly owned their rich heritage that Pele helped create, dancing in the face of racism aimed at their self-expression.

    Neymar held an important personal relationship with Pele, one that transformed over time as he came into his own at Santos before flying high at Barcelona and now Paris Saint-Germain.

    As Neymar approached and then tied Pele’s Brazil goalscoring record this year, The King was his biggest fan. The respect was always mutual, and next week, Neymar is expected to travel back to his home country to attend Pele’s funeral services.

  • Neymar Santos

    The pair's first contact

    Neymar previously revealed that Pele first contacted him ahead of a proposed move to Chelsea back in the summer of 2010.

    At the time, Neymar was playing for Pele's former club, Santos. He already held worldwide attention, his skills drawing widespread adoration in the early days of viral social media highlight packages.

    The Blues, then backed by billionaire owner Roman Abramovich, emerged as one of the early frontrunners to land Neymar. Pele, however, called to ask him to stay at Santos just a little longer.

    "He reminded me of his entire career with Santos, his five world titles with the national team and the club, and all the recognition he received," Neymar told the Daily Mail. "It wasn’t easy but it was the right decision for us. We did the right thing for our family, friends and my career."

    Indeed, Neymar would eventually join Barcelona in 2013 to set in motion a spell that included a Champions League trophy, two La Liga titles and three Copa del Rey crowns alongside a host of other club accolades.

  • Pele watch match 2006

    Pele offers fatherly advice

    Pele wasn’t afraid to show Neymar tough love from time to time.

    For example, he occasionally criticised Neymar's well-documented penchant for going to ground easily. He did so in a paternal manner, though, wanting to help Neymar improve on his path to greatness.

    "I always said that Neymar will become a great player," Pele explained back in 2018. "But what has happened in recent years? He began to want to appear in another way, not by scoring goals but by making gestures, simulating fouls, complicating the referees' lives. That's why his image became negative.

    "We have talked about it several times together, despite everything he remains one of the best players in the world. A father does not criticise, a father educates his son. When I say to you that he is our child, it's because he is considered a child of Santos. People think that I 'twist his ear' too often but I do it for his own good, I wish the best for him, for Brazil, I will do everything to help him."

  • Neymar celebrates

    Neymar approaches famous landmark

    As Neymar gained on Pele's record 77 goals for Brazil, Pele encouraged his feats rather than appearing jealous or threatened.

    Speaking in the summer of 2021 - when the PSG man was nine goals shy of Brazil's all-time record - Pele couldn't contain his pride at someone finally following in his footsteps.

    "Every time I see this boy, he is smiling," Pele beamed. "It's impossible not to smile back. It is contagious. I, like all Brazilians, am always happy when I see him playing. Today, he took another step towards my goalscoring record for the Selecao. And I'm rooting for him to get there, with the same joy I've had since I saw him play for the first time."

    For his part, Neymar appeared touched to be considered among such greatness, stating: "It's moving for me [to get closer to Pele's record], I've been through a lot these last two years. These numbers are nothing more than my joy of playing for Brazil, representing my country, my family.

    "To be a role model for someone, to make people happy, it gives me joy. I love the story that I'm writing here, I want my family and friends to be proud. I hope everyone who loves this game are proud of me, because these numbers don't really mean anything, only the pride of representing Brazil."

  • Neymar Croatia

    'You made it, boy'

    Even though Neymar matched Pele's goalscoring mark during a heartbreaking World Cup defeat to Croatia, he received validation afterward that he can cherish for a lifetime.

    The moment came less than a month before Pele's death, as Neymar cooly rounded Dominik Livakovic in extra-time to give the Selecao a 1-0 lead and score his 77th goal for his country. The advantage didn't last, of course, as Croatia forced a shootout and then won on penalties without Neymar getting an attempt.

    But Pele, via the help of social media aides, was quick to congratulate and commiserate Brazil's No.10, writing on Instagram: "I saw you grow, I cheered for you every day and finally I can congratulate you for equaling my number of goals with the Brazilian national team.

    "We both know this is so much more than a number. Our greatest duty as athletes is to inspire. To inspire our professional colleagues of today, the next generations and, above all, to inspire everyone who loves our sport.

    "Unfortunately, the day is not the happiest for us, but you will always be the source of inspiration that many aspire to become. I've learned that the more time passes, the more our legacy grows. My record was set almost 50 years ago, and no one has been able to approach it until now. You made it, boy. It values the greatness of your achievement."