KEIR RADNEDGE in RIO DE JANEIRO —- The grand climax of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games? Never mind the sprints, never mind the marathon, never mind even the party-night Closing Ceremony itself. What matters here in Rio de Janeiro will be the men’s football final: Brazil v Germany. What greater stage than Maracana?
The context is familiar. Football is a sideshow at the Olympics (although it spreads the Games out around the host nation and sells the most tickets). But in Brazil football is king – and Brazil have never won the gold medal.
This is the only grand prize to have escaped the land of Leonidas, Zizinho, Pele, Garrinca, Didi, Ronaldo and all the rest. They have five World Cups plus various Copa America and world age-group titles. But three times they have taken merely silver from the Olympic showdown: most recently for years ago against Mexico in London.
The obsession with Olympic gold has surprised some Europeans. But Olympic football is not as big a deal in Europe, where clubs routinely refuse their players permission to play (as with many of the best young Germans).
Because the Olympic Games date is not in the control of FIFA it is never factored in to the world federation’s formal international calendar.
In South America the Olympic tournaments of 1924 and 1928 are considered as having been the unofficial initial World Cups. And, to Brazil’s historical irritation, both were won by that tiny country nestling at its foot: Uruguay. Even Argentina, twice in recent memory, have won Olympic gold (in 2004 and 2008).
All that wounded national pride would be enough to set Maracana bouncing. But there is added spice: the opposition.
Two years ago, when Brazil hosted the World Cup, Germany inflicted the greatest humiliation on the hosts in their football history. The 7-1 victory superseded even the 1950 World Cup defeat by Uruguay, in this same Maracana, as a cause of national shame.
Current superstar Neymar was missing from the line-up that day. He was injured and sat, shocked, on the sidelines. Later he promised that he and Brazil’s footballers would capitalise on the Olympic opportunity to make amends.
In their first two matches at these Games, goalless draws against South Africa and Iraq, that promise seemed a bad joke. Brazil, under-rehearsed, were awful. The fans booed and jeered and finally, even worse, laughed at them. But then the goals started to flow. Four against Denmark in the group, two against Colombia in the quarter-finals and six against hapless Honduras in the semis.
Thus Brazil come to the final unbeaten and without conceding a goal while the Germans have scored an impressive 19 goals while conceding three.
Hrubesch’s last hurrah
Horst Hrubesch, Germany’s coach, is approaching his last match before retirement. He was a match-winning European champion for (then West) Germany against Belgium in Rome in 1980. Winning his last match against Brazil, in Brazil? Some prospect. His team play a neat, sharp-edged style of football which Brazil have not had to confront in these Games.
Hrubesch had little time with his players before heading to Brazil but he declared himself optimistic. Club refusals mean he does not have the strongest possible squad but that has made the players who are here all the more determined to capitalise.
They have been infected by Olympic fever.
As Schalke’s Max Meyer said: “My club placed no obstacles in my way. Now you can’t believe how much we want this. It’s a chance that comes once in a lifetime.”
Or, several lifetimes in the case of Brazil.
THE STORY SO FAR . . .
Aug 4 – Gp A: Iraq 0, Denmark 0; Brazil 0, S Africa 0. Gp B: Sweden 2, Colombia 2; Nigeria 5, Japan 4. Gp C: Mexico 2, Germany 2; Fiji 0, S Korea 8. Gp D: Honduras 3, Algeria 2; Portugal 2, Argentina 0.
Aug 7 – Gp A (Brasilia): Denmark 1, South Africa 0; Brazil 0, Iraq 0. Gp B (Manaus): Sweden 0, Nigeria 1; Japan 2, Colombia 2. Gp C (Salvador): Fiji 1, Mexico 5; Germany 3, S Korea 3. Gp D (Rio, Olimpico): Honduras 1, Portugal 2; Argentina 2, Algeria 1.
Aug 10 – Gp A: Denmark 0, Brazil 4 (Salvador); S Africa 1, Iraq 1 (Sao Paulo). Fjnal standings: Brazil 5pts; Denmark 4pts; Iraq 3pts; S Africa 2.
Gp B: Colombia 2, Nigeria 0 (Sao Paulo); Japan 1, Sweden 0 (Salvador). Final standings (all three matches): Nigeria 6pts; Colombia 5pts; Japan 4pts; Sweden 1pt
Gp C : Germany 10, Fiji 0 (Belo Horizonte); S Korea 1, Mexico 0 (Brasilia). Final standings (all three matches): S Korea 7pts; Germany 5pts; Mexico 4pts; Fiji 0.
Gp D: Algeria 1, Portugal 1 (Belo Horizonte); Argentina 1, Honduras 1 (Brasilia). Final standings (all three matches): Portugal 7pts; Honduras 4 (gd 0); Argentina 4 (gd -1); Algeria 1.
Sat, Aug 13 – Quarter-finals: Portugal 0, Germany 4 (Brasilia); Nigeria 2, Denmark 0 (Salvador); S Korea 0, Honduras 1 (Belo Horizonte); Brazil 2, Colombia 0 (Sao Paulo).
Wed, Aug 17 – Semi-finals: Nigeria 0, Germany 2 (Sao Paulo); Brazil 6, Honduras 0 (Rio Maracana).
Sat, Aug 29 – Bronze play-off: Nigeria v Honduras (Belo Horizonte, 13.00). Gold medal final: Brazil v Germany (Rio Maracana, 17.30).