Perhaps nothing will ever repair the national mourning and humiliation brought on by Brazil’s stunning 7-1 defeat to Germany on home soil in the 2014 World Cup semifinals. Certainly beating Germany to Olympic gold is no comparable compensation for missing out on World Cup glory in the most disastrous fashion imaginable. Nevertheless, a victory in Saturday’s men’s football final would go some way to bringing a catharsis and welcome dose of optimism to a national team that has been shaken by a desperate slump in recent years.
Once the standard bearer for international soccer and the spiritual home of the beautiful game, Brazil has not just been losing unusually early at major tournaments but losing ugly. Winning Olympic gold will not magically repair all the significant structural ills afflicting Brazilian soccer, particularly given that it is essentially an Under-23 competition, and one that much of the rest of the world doesn’t value all that highly.
But don’t think for a second in that it doesn’t matter. Olympic football gold matters more for Brazil than any other country. It is, after all, the one major prize to elude a team that has lifted the World Cup a record five times. The fact that the 2016 Olympics happens to be in Brazil only adds to its significance.
That Neymar, the country’s poster boy, was left out of this summer’s Copa America Centenario squad in order that he could feature at the Olympics shows just how seriously the competition is taken. While events on the track or in the pool make most headlines around the world, in Brazil itself it is events on the soccer field that have garnered most attention.
At the start of the competition it appeared that the significance of the event was too much for those involved. Against modest opposition in South Africa and Iraq in its first two games, Brazil was held scoreless, players were booed off the pitch and could not hide the enormous strain resting on their shoulders.
And then the dam broke and a whole nation could breathe again. The man nicknamed “Gabigol,” Gabriel Barbosa, scored in the 26th minute of Brazil’s final group game against Denmark and the team hasn’t stopped scoring since. Four goals were eventually put past the Danes to ensure Brazil’s progress through to the knockout rounds, before Neymar got off the mark in a 2-0 win over rivals Colombia. A potentially tricky semifinal then proved to be nothing more than a formality as Neymar struck the quickest goal in Olympic history after just 15 seconds and Brazil romped to a 6-0 demolition of Honduras.
All looks well once again. Neymar is providing the inspirational presence he was picked to be as one of three allowed overage players. And the three young forwards around him are offering verve and hope for the future. Gabigol has two goals, new Manchester City signing Gabriel Jesus three, as does Luan, whose introduction to the starting lineup against Denmark provided the catalyst for what has followed.
But now comes the biggest test yet of Brazil’s quality and, perhaps more significantly, of its mental fortitude. Can this young group of players stand up to the pressure of not just being expected to win the country’s first Olympic gold but of easing the pain of a nation? None of those who will be involved for Brazil at the famed Maracana on Saturday were on the field that fateful night in Belo Horizonte two summers ago, with Neymar having been injured in the match before, but this squad still carries their burden.
Germany, too, will not feature any player who appeared in the 2014 semifinal. Defender Matthias Ginter, a key member of the team at the Olympics, was in Germany’s victorious World Cup squad but did not get off the bench during the competition. For Ginter and many of his teammates, the Olympics are their chance to show that they can be a prominent part of Germany continuing its global success.
It is a testament to Germany’s youth production line of recent years that, despite not selecting its strongest possible squad for Rio, with under-23 players like Leroy Sane, Emre Can and Joshua Kimmich not selected after taking part in Euro 2016, it has still reached the final. And worryingly for Brazil, the squad led by Horst Hrubesch has only gotten stronger as the competition has gone one.
Germany had to come from behind to secure high-scoring draws with Mexico and South Korea in its opening games. But the defense, aided by the performances of Ginter, has been unbeaten since. Meanwhile, the attack has continued to fire. Fiji were expectedly brushed aside 10-0 before the quarterfinals saw a hugely impressive 4-0 win over a talented Portugal side. A dangerous Nigeria team were then ousted 2-0 in Wednesday’s semifinals.
Like Brazil, Germany has a collection of attacking talents. And some of the combination play between Arsenal’s Serge Gnabry, Bayer Leverkusen’s Julian Brandt and Schalke’s Max Meyer has suggested that they could soon be plying their trade at senior level. They and Germany will now aim to inflict more misery on Brazil and further aid its case that it is now the supreme force in world soccer.
Prediction: So much of this game will be decided in the heads of those Brazilian players. Will they be inspired by playing in front of its own fans, or simply overwhelmed by the both the pressure on their shoulders and the emotional intensity of the occasion? What is certain is that Germany is more than capable of taking advantage of any weakness. For the neutral, whatever the outcome, it promises to be an entertaining an engrossing spectacle, with both teams having plenty of attacking talent. But Brazil has so far been stronger at the back, and in Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Barbosa has players out wide who can take advantage of Germany’s attacking full-backs. It won’t be easy and it could go horribly wrong yet again, but this time Brazil may just prevail.
Predicted Score: Brazil 2-1 Germany
Kickoff Time: Saturday, 4.30 p.m. EDT