Eric Gomez: Neymar's first step to greatness starts with Olympic gold

The Brazilian star's popularity has skyrocketed since bursting onto the scene with Santos, but discussions placing him in Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo's level are still premature.
It definitely seems ridiculous that at this point of his career, with no European experience and no major titles under his belt at the national team level, that Brazilian wunderkind Neymar would be considered one of the elite talents of the soccer world.

Consider it a piece of pointless filler. A discussion that, today, no one would embark on with a serious tone. Of course Neymar isn't better than the three-time Ballon d'Or Lionel Messi, a man so widely regarded as one of the best players of his generation that it almost seems unfair to think that he's barely 25 years of age.

And yet, whomever wants to fuel the fire is sure to throw the question out there. "Is Neymar better than Lionel Messi?" One of world football's greatest players of all-time seems to think so.

"Now some are saying that Messi is better than me. Well, he has to be better than Neymar first, which he isn't yet. He has more experience," said Pele in April.

Not one to be outdone by his old rival's outlandish statements, then Al-Wasl manager and Argentine legend Diego Maradona fired back with a witty retort.

"My God, that is just stupid," Maradona said days later, after Pele's quote had been relayed to him during a press conference. "Maybe Neymar is the best player in the world, but only if you say that Messi is from a different planet."

Neymar himself appeared to settle the score when he himself deemed Messi as the greatest player in the world today.

Analysis on whether one of two contemporaries is better than the other is hard enough. Some believe that the Pele/Maradona debate on who was the greater player could have been settled if Maradona played during Pele's peak, and vice versa.

Of course, we can all point to the current Cristiano Ronaldo/Messi debate as evidence that comparing two contemporary athletes who play similar positions in the same league and who even come into direct contact of each other at least twice a year doesn't really settle the issue. If anything, it just makes supporters of one camp angry when the other is deemed better.

So, what does Neymar have to do to be considered among the elite?

Winning an Olympic gold medal would be a good start. By doing so, he would endear himself even more to his already fanatical Brazilian supporters. He would always be remembered as delivering the Scratch du Oro's first gold medal, as well as duplicating a feat Lionel Messi managed just four years ago at Beijing 2008.

Then there is, of course, the matter of Neymar's club career. Playing for South American powerhouse Santos was acceptable for Pele in the 1960s simply because European clubs were routinely beaten by CONMEBOL teams. The gap in talent between leagues in both continents was practically non-existent, meaning Pele's choice to stay at Santos was akin to someone wanting to stay at Real Madrid or Barcelona nowadays.

Five decades later, the 20-year-old is wasting time in Brazil. And, unfortunately, he'd be shunned out of the greatest player discussion if he were to join Real Madrid or Barcelona, too. That scenario is unlikely, however, as both teams have been fighting it out for the Brazilian's signature for the better part of a year.

No, the best way he could elbow his way into any discussion is with the Selecao. Win the Olympics. Win the Copa América. Win the World Cup. Oddly enough, he could do all of that within the next three years.

With that type of hardware, Neymar would encroach on Cristiano and Messi's territory by doing something the neither star has been able to achieve at the international level.

Maybe then the constant sniping between Pele and Maradona will seem more than just two old coots bickering about minutiae.

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