After shaking off the weight of expectation to avoid a second major tournament disaster on home soil in quick succession, Olympic host Brazil now faces another date with the past in the quarterfinals of the men’s football event. Two years after humiliation at the 2014 World Cup, the most successful soccer nation in history stood on the verge of yet another harrowing experience in front of its own fans on Wednesday.
Insipid in goalless draws against South Africa and Denmark, Brazil went into its final group match against Denmark needing a victory to preserve its hopes of claiming a long sought first Olympic gold medal in the event. With 26 minutes gone in Salvador, the dam finally burst and the huge pressure was released when Gabriel Barbosa lived up to his billing “Gabigol” to find the net. The forward added another late on, with fellow young forwards Gabriel Jesus and Luan scoring in between to in the end secure an emphatic 4-0 win and move onto the quarterfinals.
But awaiting in the last eight will be a familiar foe in South American rival Colombia. And it is a match that will have particularly painful memories for the man expected to lead Brazil to the gold medal: Neymar.
It was against Colombia at the 2014 World Cup that Brazil’s poster boy suffered a tournament-ending injury when a match riddled with fouls and constantly on the verge of outright violence led to Neymar getting a knee in the back and a broken bone. Brazil would prevail on that occasion, but without Neymar in the semifinals against Germany the host nation would suffer a historic 7-1 defeat.
A year later, another tournament was brought to an abrupt end for Neymar against Colombia. This time it was of his own making when at the end of another bad-tempered affair, this time in the group stage of the Copa America, the Barcelona forward, along with Colombia’s Carlos Bacca, saw a red card after a mass brawl at the final whistle. Without its talisman, Brazil again tumbled in the next round.
With the Olympics being a primarily Under-23 event, albeit with three overage players allowed, only two of those involved in either of those heated occasions will take the field in Sao Paulo on Saturday. Both, though, will have prominent roles, with Teofilo Gutierrez expected to lead the line for Colombia and Neymar taking the weight of a nation on his back once again for Brazil.
While Neymar has yet to find the net in the 2016 Olympics, Gutierrez, now on loan from Sporting Lisbon at Argentine side Rosario Central, scored in each of Colombia’s three group matches. With fellow forward Dorlan Pabon having scored twice, Brazil’s defense will have plenty to keep it occupied.
After 2-2 draws against both Japan and Sweden, Colombia, which beat the United States in a playoff to make it to the Olympics, beat Nigeria 2-0 to seal its place in the quarterfinals. That was the first time Colombia had ever gone beyond the first round of the Olympics.
Prediction: The cast may be different, but this promises to be another hotly contested meeting between the two South American rivals. The senior Colombia team has previously earmarked a player to successfully man-mark Neymar and it will be interesting to see if a similar approach is taken by Olympic coach Carlos Restrepo. It could be another tough evening for the host and Colombia certainly has the quality to pull off the upset. But, having got the win and a few goals under its belt and benefiting from a key tactical tweak with the introduction of Luan, Brazil may just prevail.
Predicted Score: Brazil 2-1 Colombia
Kickoff Time: Saturday, 9 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: NBCSN
Live Stream: NBCOlympics.com