KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Brazilian superstar Neymar leads the parade of 504 players who go to the Olympic Games football tournament in Rio de Janeiro – and Russia is not involved in either men’s or women’s competition so no confusion there.
The host nation have never won Olympic gold, it’s the single major international prize to have eluded them by comparison with the five World Cups, four Confederations Cups, eight South American titles and eight world age-group crowns.
Four years ago, in London, Brazil were favourites ahead of the men’s gold medal final at Wembley only to be upstaged 2-1 by Mexico. That was the third time they had fallen at the final hurdle. Previously Brazil had lost to Brazil in 1984 and to the Soviet Union in 1988.
But making up for London 2012 is not the only weight on the shoulders of Neymar and his team-mates. The dark cloud which has hung over Brazil’s national team for the past two years is the shame of their astonishing 7-1 defeat by Germany in the semi-final of the World Cup in Belo Horizonte two years ago.
Neymar was sitting on the bench, injured, that day. But it was not long before he was promising to make amends at Rio 2016. To ensure Barcelona would not raise any obstacles he volunteered to miss the Copa America Centenario in the United States in June – because the Olympic Games is a very big deal.
Usually the football, both men’s and women’s, is a sideshow while swimming, track and field athletics, cycling, rowing etc command the air time and the headlines. But in Brazil it will be different. The host country do not expect to win many medals but if they were offered the guarantee of winning only one then it would be football.
Recent history of of men’s football at the Games points directly to a Latin American success. Te last three gold medal-winning teams have come from the Americas, with five of the six finalists in the past three editions coming from either North or South America.
Brazil, winners of the 2013 Confederations Cup on home soil, will face tough competition from continental rivals Colombia who can count Teo Gutierrez, a star of Brazil 2014, among their ranks, while Mexico look to Oribe Peralta – who scored four times on the road to gold at London 2012 including two in the final.
It is 24 years since a European team won the Olympics after complete domination from 1936 to 1992. Germany pose the main threat with Horst Hrubesch managing one last hurrah with a squad which includes Matthias Ginter who was a member of the World Cup-winning party. Also selected are the experienced Bender twins, Lars and Sven.
Atlanta 1996 winners Nigeria have the experience in midfield of Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel, taking advantage of the finals rule which permits each team to include up to three over-age players for what is an under-23 tournament in a 16-team tournament (with 288 players).
No such age restrictions for the 216 players who play out the 12-team women’s event. Odds-on favourites, yet again, are Olympic and world champions United States with seven gold medal winners from London among their squad.
Brazil will be led by veteran five-times World Player of the Year Marta with 38-year-old Formiga extending her record of having appeared at every Women’s Olympic football tournament since the initial finals in 1996.
CITIES AND STADIA: