If qualifying for the 2018 World Cup ended Thursday, Brazil would not be traveling to Russia for soccer’s biggest event.
Yes, you read that correctly. Brazil, the most iconic footballing nation of them all, is currently on the outside looking in at 2018 World Cup qualification. That, of course follows Brazil’s 7-1 shellacking by Germany on home soil in the 2014 World Cup semifinals, a humiliation that still haunts the national psyche.
Situating soccer as a pillar of the Brazilian identity is by now common enough to border on banal but even the briefest visit to Brazil proves the clich true.
I saw it firsthand during the 2014 World Cup, as all of Rio ground to a standstill whenever Brazil played. I’ve seen it on the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, where a game called futevolei (think volleyball meets soccer) is played with astounding skill by men and women of all ages. And I saw it on a balmy night in 2008 at Rio’s legendary Maracana stadium, where hometown club Fluminense battled Argentina’s Boca Juniors inside a fiery cauldron of rabid passion.
So that’s our context for these Olympics and why Brazil is taking soccer at the 2016 Games much more seriously than any other nation.
Men’s soccer at the Olympics typically makes few ripples; it’s mostly reserved for younger players, and seen more as a development tournament than an important test. Brazil, however, is having none of that this summer.
Neymar, Brazilian soccer’s biggest star (and perhaps its only true star right now) was held out of the much more highly regarded Copa America earlier this summer to give the Olympic hosts a better chance of winning at home after the burning failure of the 2014 World Cup. Without Neymar, Brazil was eliminated in the Copa America’s group stage in June.
Unlike most teams at the Olympics, Brazil wants this. It needs this.
And it’s off to a bad start.
A 0-0 draw with South Africa opened the campaign on Thursday.
Booed off in Brasilia
FIFA’s world soccer rankings are notorious for their non-linear relationship with reality. With teams fielding young rosters in Rio, that goes double for the Olympics. But the rankings do provide a very general reference point for where Brazil and South Africa sit respectively in the soccer universe.
Brazil, for all its troubles, is still ranked ninth in the world by FIFA. South Africa is ranked 67th. The two sides played Thursday in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, in front of a partisan home crowd. South Africa’s Mothobi Mvala was issued his second yellow card of the match in the 59th minute, meaning he was sent off, meaning Brazil had a one-man advantage for the match’s final 30 minutes.
Yet still, Brazil could only muster a scoreless draw in its own capital city against a lower-ranked opponent playing down a man for half an hour.
As the whistle blew to signal full-time, fans rained boos upon the Brazilian players at Mane Garrincha Stadium, according to reports from Brasilia.
Brazil’s next group play match is Sunday against Iraq. A goal would be nice. A win would be better. But even that would be just one wobbly step forward on the road to soccer redemption.
Bigger problems loom ahead
How much does the memory of Brazil’s 7-1 dismantling at the
hands feet of Germany in the 2014 World Cup still sting? “Taking a 7-1” has now become part of the everyday Brazilian lexicon, according to a fascinating report from Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated.
“When Brazil president Dilma Rousseff was impeached earlier this year, media reports proclaimed that Rousseff ‘took a 7-1,'” Wahl writes.
Ouch. Damn. LMAO, as the kids say.
Perhaps one could call failing to make the elimination stage of the Copa America earlier this summer another “7-1” for Brazil. If not, failing to win the Olympics at home would certainly qualify as “taking a 7-1,” Wahl writes.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves Brazil could still win this thing! Olympic hosts often slog through tepid opening matches. Perhaps Thursday’s 0-0 draw with South Africa was simply a case of working out some kinks. Brazil has a talented roster overall. And they have Neymar, the best player in this tournament.
Even gold in the Rio Olympics would be but a temporary solution, however. Which brings us back to the beginning of this story, back to World Cup qualification.
The top four finishers in the 10-team South American qualifying table make the World Cup; the fifth-place team enters a playoff against a nation from another continent. With two wins, three draws and two losses, Brazil is currently stranded in sixth place.
So that’s where Brazil sits on Thursday night after its 0-0 draw against 10-man South Africa. The quest for Olympic gold is off to an underwhelming start, but it’s still very much alive.
That all hides the real problem, though. Failing to win the Olympics on home soil would be yet another outright disaster for Brazilian soccer. But winning it all will only put a temporary Band-Aid on a gaping, festering wound that opened during the 2014 World Cup and threatens Brazil’s chances for 2018.