A scoreless draw with South Africa in its Olympics opener was one thing for the Brazil men’s soccer team. Lots of pressure, the dawn of a sacred quest, the fact that Olympic hosts traditionally start a bit slow in their first matches you could rationalize the whole thing as a fluke, if you really wanted to.
But … Iraq?
After Brazil labored to another scoreless draw in its second Olympics match, this time against Iraq, a low-ranked team from a war-torn country with one World Cup appearance to its name, now might be time for fans of the Seleo to press the panic button.
Just how bad is it?
Brazil the host nation of the 2016 Olympics and the only country with five World Cup titles hasn’t even scored a goal yet.
We told you last week about how these are dire times for Brazil’s iconic men’s soccer team. Looking back, Brazil was humiliated on home soil in the 2014 World Cup semifinals when Germany waltzed its way to a historic 7-1 win. (“Taking a 7-1” has since entered the Brazilian lexicon as a term for getting walloped in business, politics, sports or, well, anything.) Looking ahead, Brazil currently sits outside South American qualifying for the 2018 World Cup a possibility that seemed unthinkable just a few years ago.
Never in modern history has Brazil soccer been in such a humiliating position.
Which brings us to the present, and to the grand total of zero goals (not to mention the grand total of zero wins) Brazil has to show for itself after taking on both South Africa and Iraq in the Olympics.
“We need to apologize to the fans, to the people of Brasilia,” coach Rogerio Micale said after Monday’s 0-0 draw with Iraq.
Fans booed Brazil off the pitch following the opener against South Africa. They did the same after the subsequent disappointment against Iraq. Some fans even took it a step further Monday by chanting “Marta! Marta!” in reference to the Brazilian women’s soccer star it seems the vaunted men’s team could use right about now.
Neymar, but no goals
Neymar was supposed to provide for the young men’s side firepower similar to what Marta brings the women’s team. (The Brazil women’s team, normally overshadowed by the men, has scored eight goals in routing China and Sweden.) So far, however, the FC Barcelona star has been rendered ineffective by inferior opponents.
But Neymar’s very presence on the Olympic team speaks to the current level of desperation in Brazilian soccer.
Olympic soccer is a far cry from the World Cup unless you happen to be Brazil and we happen to be talking about the 2016 Olympics. Then it’s a big deal a very, very big deal.
Olympic men’s soccer only allows teams to include three players over the age of 23. In other words, it’s more of a prep-for-the-future thing than a full test of a nation’s soccer talent. Earlier this summer, the Copa America a championship for countries from South America, Central America, the Caribbean and North America was a much more important tournament in the realm of international men’s soccer.
Yet here’s Neymar in the Olympics after sitting out the Copa America, where the national team failed to advance past group play without him. Brazil hopes to capture its first Olympic gold in men’s soccer and do something to soothe the national humiliation that still lingers after Germany’s 7-1 beatdown two years ago, so it held Neymar out of the Copa America in favor of playing him in the Olympics.
And here we are. Brazil’s recent soccer past is humiliating. Its future qualifying for the 2018 World Cup is in doubt. And now its present, featuring Neymar, is on shaky ground after lifeless performances against South Africa and Iraq to open Olympic play.
Forget gold. This is about survival for Brazil now. The Olympics’ knockout stage starts Saturday. The only way Brazil can guarantee itself a spot in the eight-team field is by beating Denmark on Wednesday.
‘The anxiety increases’
That’s eminently doable at least, in theory. Brazil has Neymar, as well as a handful of hot young prospects led by 19-year-olds Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel “Gabigol” Barbosa. Denmark is not a highly regarded team. But Denmark is much more highly regarded than South Africa and Iraq, the minnows against which Brazil could not muster a win, let alone a goal.
“As the time passes and we can’t score, the anxiety increases, and in this situation it’s easier to make mistakes,” Micale, the coach, said after the Iraq match. “It’s natural.”
Beat Denmark, though, and anxiety dissipates as a new hope rises just three more wins to the gold medal. It doesn’t seem likely now, but perhaps they can right the ship. Perhaps this youthful Brazil team can rally around Neymar, win the Olympics and provide some hope for the future after the sting of the 2014 World Cup debacle.
If not, Brazil’s recent resume will include that embarrassment by Germany, this summer’s early Copa America exit and another home soil humiliation in this year’s Olympics.
That would be three strikes, to mix our sporting metaphors, at which point you’d have to consider what once seemed unfathomable: Brazil, right now, is just another soccer nation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.