KEIR RADNEDGE in BRASILIA —- Football at the Olympics may not usually grab the Games biggest headline. But in Brazil where football is king and Games gold has remained out of reach, the tale is different. Not least because this is the one prize which has always eluded them.
Hence, with Brazil held goalless by 10-men South Africa, the crowd whistled and booed its disapproval at the failure to put away a visiting side who had been expected to be easy meat, by home fans at any rate.
Certainly that failure was not for the want of trying amid the anguished shrieks of the torcida. At times, if anything, Brazil were trying almost too hard in their increasing desperation. The well-organised South African effort, it must be acknowledged, was outstanding.
Earlier in the day, in the same Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha, a makeshift young Danish side had been fortunate to escape with a 0-0 draw against a sharper, more aggressive Iraq.
Brazil had plenty for which to make amends: the 2014 World Cup humiliation by Germany and two poor subsequent outings at Copa America tournaments. The most recent had seen manager Dunga sacked and replaced by Tite. But t was youth coach Rogerio Micale who remained at the helm of the Olympic effort.
Micale used his full quota of three overage players in goalkeeper Weverton, midfielder Renato Augusto and forward Felipe Anderson plus the experience of three four foreign-based players including skipper Neymar from Barcelona and centre-back Marquinhos who had managed to exricate himself from the reluctant clutches of Paris Saint-Germain.
Leading the attack was Gabriel Jesus, the Palmeiras teenager who has just agreed to join Manchester City for around €40m at the start of next year.
Yet it was Bafana Bafana who fashioned the first opening when the pace of Lille’s Lebo Mothiba took Marquinhos by surprise only for his stabbed shot to ricochet off Weverton, against the South African and out for a goal kick.
The South Africans showed not a little turn of speed and ambition on the counter-attack while also defending in enthusiastic numbers. Hence early fledgling raids by Anderson and an eletrifying turn of pace by Gabriel Jesus ultimately came to nothing.
Neymar was nearest to a goal with a drive which was acrobatically punched over the crossbar by Kaizer Chiefs’ goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune. Shortly before half-time he was similarly foiled again by Khune, this time after nimble work on the left by Gabriel Jesus.
South Africa would have been encouraged by the nervy, slip-fingered display of Weverton, one of the old school of Brazilian keepers who look capable of anything bar keeping goal. He was also lucky to see a low drive from hard-working skipper Dolly Keagan skid just wide of his left-hand post.
The second half opened with a flurry of half-chances at both ends. Neymar, always surrounded by two and sometimes even three markers, strove in true captain’s fashion to puncture the South African defence but nothing ever quite came off.
Even after Mothobi Mvala was sent off for two yellow cards in quick succession, the South Africans survived in an ever-increasingly frantic finale.
Gabriel Jesus hit a post from close range after Luan slipped the ball across goal. Then Neymar saw a ferocious drive skim paint off the crossbar before producing a magical twist of skill to send in Gabriel Jesus whose shot was popped up off Khune’s foot and was headed over the bar by Luan.
Amid the frenzy Micale was ticked off by Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz for virtually falling over the technical area onto the pitch in his eagerness to get his messages across to his players.
Whatever the messages, they did not work. The Brazilian players’ wave of appreciation to their unhappy fans at the final whistle was most definitely not reciprocated.
Another goalless draw
** Iraq and Denmark, earlier, had opened the men’s Olympic tournament with an entertaining goalless draw in Brasilia.
The Iraqis extended their record of never losing in a men’s Olympic opener while Denmark’s presence maintained an ever-present register since the very first finals in 1908.
The first half was lively with both teams pressing for the first goal. Denmark had the first significant chance of the match when Casper Nielsen found captain Lasse Vibe but his shot hit the base of the right post.
Iraq set the attacking tone for the rest of the half. Udinese’s Ali Adnan lived up to his star billing from out on the left wing and also showed his strength from free-kicks, testing Denmark goalkeeper Jeppe Hojbjerg on two occasions near the end of the first half.
The quality of the match faded after the interval and it was not until the last five minutes that Iraq threatened again. Adnan had two more free-kicks saved by Hojbjerg, while Saad Luabi sent a close-range header wide.