CHRISTIAN RADNEDGE in RIO DE JANEIRO —- Eight years ago, in Beijing, Brazil’s women footballers stood in a long sorrowful line, all sobbing inconsolably, as they awaited the award of their silver medals after losing the Olympic final in extra time to the United States.
The women footballers are first into Olympic action today, two days ahead of the offiicial Opening Ceremony. But even with the eternal Marta still around and the long-serving Formiga, Brazil’s dreams of making up for all that lost time are not as strong as the host nation of the 2016 Rio Olympics might hope.
Led by head coach Vadao since 2014, Brazil not only feel the weight of expectation from excelling on home soil but must also put in a better performance than the last Games in London where they failed to reach the final four for the first time – losing 2-0 to eventual silver medalists Japan in the quarter-finals in Cardiff.
Since then, women’s football has gone from strength to strength around the world with European leagues in particular improving year on year.
However, Brazil still does not have a national league for women with state competitions receiving little financial aid from the federation.
This makes it even more difficult when it comes to competing with their higher funded rivals in North America, Europe and Asia on the big stage. It was hoped Brazil would help to restore some national pride at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada. They were, however, defeated in the round of 16 by Australia.
The squad remained in Canada and did go on to win gold at the Pan American Games, so have a taste of what it would mean to stand on the winning podium here.
Again they look to their captain Marta for inspiration. The five time world player of the year has 103 international goals to her name, but will also once again be creating chances for forward Cristiane, who moved to Paris Saint-Germain last year, and is the leading scorer in the women’s Olympic football competitions with 12 goals.
Most of her club teammates will be competing for France in only the European nation’s second appearance in an Olympic Games. They finished fourth in London after narrowly losing 1-0 to Canada in the bronze medal match. But they will face an early test of what it takes to clinch gold as they face fellow Group G members and world champions United States on Saturday in Belo Horizonte.
Jill Elllis’s side, still on a high after their emphatic triumph at the 2015 World Cup, are the team to beat having not lost a match in the competition since the first round of the 2008 edition in Beijing.
They are in the hunt for a historic fourth consecutive gold medal, and five in total. The US won the inaugural women’s football competition at Atlanta 1996.
However, the question is whether their performance will be affected by their ongoing disagreement with US Soccer to receive the same pay as their male counterparts.
Without star striker Abby Wambach for the first time since Sydney 2000 after her retirement in December, they begin their campaign against New Zealand on Wednesday evening in Belo.
Australia could be the dark horses in Rio having secured their place by topping the Asian qualification table, beating Japan en route and scoring 17 goals. They’ll find it tough going though in Group F alongside Canada, Germany and debutants Zimbabwe.
Two-time world champions Germany have consistently underwhelmed when it comes to the Summer games, claiming three consecutive bronze medals from 2000 to 2008. Rio 2016 will be the final tournament for head coach Silvia Neid who has led the squad since 2005, but hands over to her assistant Steffi Jones later this year.
The final representatives from Europe are Sweden who have Great Britain’s football administrative debacle to thank for their place.
The 2015 World Cup served as the main qualifiers for European nations, so England with their third place finish would have been the first to automatically make it through to Rio.
However, Great Britain elected not to send a collective team to Brazil because of opposition from the other home associations, meaning Sweden made it through to the Olympic playoffs after Germany and France were automatically selected.
Sweden will open the women’s tournament when they play Group E opponents South Africa in the Olympic Stadium in Rio on Wednesday. Brazil take on China in the same venue that evening.
For organisers, not only does the women’s competition provide a real, if challenging, medal chance for the home side but also an accurate gauge of support for women’s football in Brazil.
Records will be hard to beat as around 83,000 packed out Wembley to see the US defeat Japan in the 2012 final, while Beijing saw more than 700,000 turn out to see matches in the 2008 edition.
With more Brazilian players flocking to the US, Europe and Asia to ply their trade, a huge swell of public support may be the catalyst that the CBF needs to kickstart a national league to help the Martas and Formigas of the future to flourish.