Neymar Rising

The Brazilian hasn't let comparisons with soccer's legends drag him down

Pressure is what Neymar da Silva Santos Jr. eats for breakfast–and lunch and dinner. The Brazilian superstar has carried the burden of enormous expectations on his slight shoulders since 2009, when–in his second season as a pro–he was hailed as the successor to the soccer deity who frequently watched him play from a special box at the Vila Belmiro stadium: Pelé.

Comparisons with the great Brazilian often grind down promising goal scorers. Neymar simply shrugged them off. Then just 17, a rangy kid who left fans (and opposing defenders) breathless, he played with an impish smile. As good as Pelé? In interviews, he evaded the question. On the field, he made it inescapable. He scored 126 goals in 246 appearances for his hometown club, Santos FC. When Brazil hosted the 2013 Confederations Cup, it fell to Neymar to deliver the championship.

His recent exploits have raised another question: Is Neymar as good as Argentine Lionel Messi, possibly the best player playing? Instead of evading that question, Neymar joined FC Barcelona, Messi’s club. At first, he was happy to play in Messi’s shadow. But when Messi was injured in November, Neymar stepped up, smacking in six goals in three December games.

This summer will bring burdens of another sort as Brazil hosts the World Cup. Naturally, 200 million passionate home fans will expect Neymar to supply the tournament-winning goals, as Pelé once did. How’s he taking it? “I turn this pressure into happiness, joy,” he told TIME. That’s the kind of alchemy Brazil has come to expect from the man with the magic feet.

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