With news that rising Brazil football star Neymar has joined the Red Bull family, we look at how he and nine other stars have kept the South American country on the map of soccer greatness across the decades.
Leônidas da Silva
In the first two World Cups in 1930 and ’34, Brazil barely even made a mark on the tournament, but that all changed at the 1938 World Cup in France, largely due to the prolific Leônidas. He finished with the golden boot for his seven goals, and had his manager Adhemar Pimenta not rested him in the semi-final against Italy, a game Brazil subsequently lost, he most likely would have scored even more and possibly helped Brazil to win a World Cup 20 years earlier than they eventually managed. As well as scoring 21 goals in just 19 games for his country, the ‘Black Diamond’ is also widely credited with inventing the bicycle kick, a trick so new in 1938 that one World Cup referee wasn’t even sure if it was legal…
The rise of the world’s most celebrated footballer was swift even by Brazilian folk hero standards. Debuting for Santos at 15, then for the national team at 16 where he scored Brazil’s goal in a defeat to Argentina, by age 17 the boy born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in a poor district of São Paulo had become known the world over as Pelé, the youngest ever World Cup winner and scorer of two goals in Brazil’s 5–2 final win over 1958 hosts Sweden. The entirety of his top-level career was played in his home country for his first club, where he scored 1,087 goals in 1,120 appearances in 18 years. Seventy-seven goals came from his 92 Brazil appearances. It’s unlikely that his status as the king of soccer will ever be surpassed.
Manuel Francisco dos Santos, aka Garrincha (‘little bird’) was rather different from Pelé, though still brilliant. Though he made an impact less early – he was born with a curved spine and other problems – and had no interest in professional soccer’s potential riches, Garrincha eventually made his mark when he bamboozled established international defender Nilton Santos with his dribbling skills in a training session for Botafogo, whereupon Santos insisted he was hired. Garrincha duly scored a hat-trick on his league debut in 1953, and by 1955 was in the Brazil national team. With Pelé injured early on in the 1962 World Cup, Garrincha was the star of the Brazil show as they wrapped up a second successive tournament win. Amazingly, the only international game of the 50 he played that ended in defeat for Brazil was his last against Hungary at the World Cup in 1966, when he was carrying an injury. Despite struggles with chronic alcohol addiction and a very colourful personal life, Garrincha retained legendary status in world soccer after his death from liver disease in 1983.
Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira wasn’t your average footballer in any sense. He is regarded as among the best ever footballers for his tricky backheels and 22 goals in 60 appearances for Brazil, including a stint as captain which covered the 1982 World Cup in Spain. But just as notable are his brazen pro-democracy political activities when Brazil was under military rule, as well as his intellectual writings and the fact that he studied medicine while playing professional soccer full-time, a shrewd move that has offered the now-56-year-old a solid career as a sports medical practitioner in Brazil, despite the fact that he still reportedly smokes and drinks heavily. Bizarrely, he also came out of retirement seven years ago for a month as player-coach at the tiny non-league Garforth Town FC near Leeds in the north of England!
Romário de Souza Faria, like Pelé, is credited with an exceptional number of goals – though it was claimed he reached the 1,000 mark in 2007, an event that led to the suspension of the match in which it happened to allow the celebrations, FIFA officially only recognises 929 of them from senior appearances. What’s undeniable, though, is that Romário still managed to claim the title of the Brazilian league’s top scorer with 22 goals from 32 matches while playing for Vasco de Gama in 2005–6 at the tender age of 40, and was still playing in 2009 for his father’s beloved América in Rio de Janeiro. The title of FIFA’s World Footballer of the Year came in 1994, the same year that Brazil blazed back to World Cup glory after 24 years in the USA, but injury and indiscipline meant that he missed the next two World Cups. Nevertheless, 55 goals from 70 games is no mean record. Enjoy 20 of Romário’s best finishes from a stellar career below…
Perhaps the best-known and most-lauded footballer in the modern era, Ronaldo is now much-travelled in the big clubs of Europe, having started on the advice of Romário at PSV Eindhoven as a teenager way back in 1994. One of only two players to have won the FIFA World Footballer of the Year award three times – Zinedine Zidane is the other – Ronaldo has played for both Milan clubs in Serie A, as well as both Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain. Now 34, Ronaldo is back in Brazil at Corinthians, and remains as popular as ever. His 62 goals in 97 games for the national team came during 12 years in which he won the World Cup in 2002 – and famously played in the 1998 final despite reportedly suffering a fit just hours before the 3–0 defeat to France in which the great legend did indeed look distinctly off-colour…
The crown has slipped a little recently after he missed out on selection for the 2010 World Cup, but Ronaldinho – once called Gáucho to distinguish him from Ronaldo, above, who also used that name in Brazil – is probably the best-loved soccer trickster in the world. He first shot to prominence after scoring all 23 goals in a 23–0 hammering in a youth match in Porto Alegre. After a move to Arsenal fell through because of work permit problems, Ronaldinho went to France at the age of 21 and signed for PSG before moving onto Barcelona and then Milan. Like many of his countrymen, he has just returned to Brazil and Flamengo for 2011. But he’ll always be best remembered for all those tricks. Enjoy the best of them in this multi-million-hit viral ad for Nike in 2005.
Robson de Souza, aka Robinho, was hand-picked by none other than Pelé as his ‘successor’ aged 15, some fillip for a young star, and Robinho didn’t disappoint, scoring 46 goals for Santos in three seasons, with two Brazilian championships in that time. A big-money move to Real Madrid was followed by a less successful stint in England at Manchester City, with the restless Robinho eventually opting for a loan spell back home at Santos. He is now in Serie A at Milan, with the bizarre squad number of 70… He is also currently the Brazil national team captain, having made 83 appearances already at the age of just 26. You feel the Robinho story still has some as-yet-unwritten chapters to look forward to…
Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, aka Kaká, is in some senses lucky to be able to play football at all. Having chosen the sport over his other great skill, tennis, the 18-year-old Kaká suffered a life-threatening spinal fracture in a swimming pool, his recovery from which the devout player attributed to God. By 2007, Kaká was winning the FIFA World Player of the Year and European Ballon D’Or awards in the same season for his performances for Milan, and shortly afterwards Real Madrid smashed the transfer record with an eye-watering $89m bid for his services. Like Robinho, Kaká has more than 80 appearances for his country, despite only being 28…
Unlike the names above, the career of Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior is just beginning. The exciting 18-year-old already has 64 appearances for Santos under his belt, having debuted at 17 and scored in his second game for the side. Almost inevitably, European names like Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid are already being linked with the young star, who also scored for Brazil in his debut in a friendly against the USA last summer. Watch some incredible Neymar skill here…