RIO DE JANEIRO • Neymar is closing in on Pele's all-time scoring record for Brazil and the Selecao legend could not be happier.
The Paris Saint-Germain forward was an inspired figure as the hosts became the first side to qualify for the Copa America knockout stage following a 4-0 win over Peru in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday.
Goals from Alex Sandro, Neymar, Everton Ribeiro and Richarlison gave the holders their ninth straight win in all competitions and a perfect six points from two games in Group A, leaving their point-less opponents rooted to the bottom.
Neymar is now nine goals shy of Pele's mark (77) and the 80-year-old is confident he will go on to break it.
"Every time I see this boy, he is smiling. It is impossible not to smile back. It is contagious. I, like many Brazilians, am always happy when I see him playing soccer," wrote Pele on Instagram with a picture of him and Neymar taken together at Brazilian club Santos, whom they both starred for.
"Today, he took another step towards my goal-scoring record for the Selecao. And I am rooting for him to get there, with the same joy I've had since I saw him play for the first time."
Neymar was named Man of the Match following his side's victory and was emotional in his post-match interview, recalling how he missed Brazil's 2019 Copa America triumph because of injury.
Injuries have also marred his time at PSG, while the world's most expensive footballer lost a lucrative and longstanding sponsorship deal with Nike last year because of a sexual assault allegation made by a Nike employee.
In 2019, Neymar was also accused of rape by Najila Trindade, but the case was dismissed with the model later charged with perverting the course of justice.
"It is very emotional to me because I went through a lot in the last two years. Difficult and complicated. These numbers are nothing compared to the happiness I have playing for Brazil," said the former Barcelona star, who moved from the Nou Camp to Parc des Princes for €222 million (S$354 million) in 2017.
"It's an honour for me to be part of the Brazilian national team history. To be honest, my dream was always to play for the Selecao, to wear this jersey. I never imagined achieving these numbers."
Brazil have two more group-stage fixtures left, against Colombia next Wednesday and Ecuador on June 27. They have won the Copa every time they have been the hosts.
In the other game, short-handed Venezuela, still dealing with the effects of a Covid-19 outbreak in their camp that ruled out eight players in their Copa opener, held out under intense pressure from Colombia to secure their first point after a 0-0 draw.