Olympics: Brazil are wilting under pressure (again)

Is there such a thing as cosmic influence, or perhaps cosmic interference, when it comes to sports? In this particular case, can all the instability, violence, and corruption that is happening in Brazil be imprinting itself on this iteration of the national team? The burden of a nation can be heavy, the burden of a soccer mad population that desperately needs something to go its way can be crushing, especially on the shoulders of relatively untested youngsters. It seems to be playing out this way thus far with the Brazilian soccer team in the Rio 2016 Olympics, where the hosts (and prohibitive favorites for the gold medal) have failed to score in one hundred and eighty minutes against the U-23 teams of South Africa and Iraq.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Failed to score? The vaunted Baby Seleção? Not since 1972 have the Brazilians failed to score in consecutive matches at the Olympics, and a team being led by Neymar, considered by most soccer followers worldwide to be amongst the best players on the planet, should not have equaled that ignominious record. 

Neymar has looked off-pace in the Olympics. Note to self: don’t party too much with Justin Bieber. (Photo by Ricardo Botelho/Brazil Photo Press/LatinContent/Getty Images)

This was supposed to be the group that got Brazil back on track, that finally captured the elusive gold medal, the only major hardware Brazil has never won, and brought some measure of happiness (and perhaps more importantly, respect) back to the land of the Amazon. Yet, with only one group game against Denmark remaining, and with the host nation needing a win to secure passage out of the group, the stage is seemingly being set for another humiliating home ground failure. So what has gone wrong? And can it be fixed in time?

Before looking at the present and the very near future (Brazil play for their life on Wednesday), we have to look at the recent past to understand not only how this moment came about, but why it means so much. After capturing the 2002 World Cup and the 2004 Copa America with the original Ronaldo and a young Ronaldinho, Brazil have not won a major tournament. The Brazilian public has had to endure not one but two stints under Dunga, who has proved to be a much better captain than coach for the Seleção.

They’ve had to endure the rapid decline of their stars Ronaldinho and Kaka, the failure of the likes of Robinho and Alexandre Pato to become the stars they were meant to be, and are in the middle of watching the new chosen one Neymar struggle with a supporting cast that lacks the firepower of previous iterations of the yellow and blue. They’ve also had to endure recent Olympic failure, having watched their heavily favored team, consisting of Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Hulk, Pato, as well as younger versions of Neymar, Lucas Moura and Oscar, lose in the gold medal match at the London 2012 Olympics to Mexico.  With the games being set in Rio, the stars seem to be aligning for Brazil to break their Olympic duck at home, and help assuage painful memories of the 2014 World Cup disaster. Through two games though, powerful forces seem to be working against the Brazilians and that dream.

Gabriel Jesus has been the worst of the attacking trio of Brazil, which also includes Neymar and Gabigol. (Photo Celso Junior/Getty Images)

Thus far, the kids have looked scared. Plain and simple. They look like kids, being thrust onto the national and international stage before they are ready. The trio of Neymar, the recent Manchester City acquisition Gabriel Jesus and Santos’ goal-scoring machine Gabriel “Gabigol” Barbosa, easily the best attacking trio at the Games, have all failed to get going simultaneously. Jesus has come the closest of the three to scoring, but it was an occasion where he hit the post with a gaping open goal to aim at, which might actually be worse. 

He has also looked the most out of place of the three, having played most of the year with reigning Brazilian league champs Palmeiras in a wider, more open role and does not seem suited to being a number 9 at the moment. Neymar has looked off the pace for much of the tournament; it shows just how much time he spent during the summer partying with Justin Bieber in Los Angeles. As the tournament’s marquee player he is getting a lot of attention from the other teams, which usually consists of being hacked down a multitude of times, making him irritated, and consequently throwing him off his game. Gabigol has looked the best of the three, with his passion and work rate showing through, but his decision making in the final third has been poor so far. This has to change if Brazil want to advance.

As for the rest of the team, they can take some positives over having not conceded a goal through two games, but the competition should not have troubled them anyway. They have looked vulnerable on the counterattack and despite winning the possession and shots battle with both South Africa and Iraq (Brazil have attempted forty shots thus far in two games), have looked more likely to concede than to score on a number of occasions.

More alarming than any statistic, however, is that they are miserably failing the eye test. The body language is negative, their faces look tense, and the naturally beautiful soccer that has become synonymous with Brazil has been non-existent. The pressure seems to have mounted to a point where the boys can no longer enjoy themselves on the pitch; all of them, with the possible exception of Neymar, look so afraid of making a mistake that they don’t produce anything positive, much less try the flair and trickery we expect from a Seleção. Even players like Felipe Anderson, who always seems to have a trick up his sleeve for Lazio in Serie A, looks weighed down by the moment. It is worth mentioning as well that this young team is missing Bayern Munich’s flying winger Douglas Costa, who is looking to be a bigger and bigger loss with each passing minute of scoreless soccer.

Yet despite the doom and gloom of this article and many others like it, all is not lost yet.  If Brazil beat Denmark they are through to the knockout stage, and if South Africa and Iraq draw, they will somewhat miraculously top their group. Should that happen, it might just be the lift Brazil needs to kick it into the gear that was expected of them and they could be off to the races and peak at the right time. At the moment, Brazil’s precarious position seems tied to the fact that they can’t score, but it could just be a case of needing one to score many. If those floodgates do open, Brazil can go from underachievers to world-beaters within minutes. And being the host, they can become buoyed by the home crowd instead of fearing them, which could catapult them back into the betting favorite.

For the time being, it all seems to hinge on that first goal. When and if they get it remains to be seen, but you can’t ever write off Brazil until the final whistle blows and with a nation wanting to believe in their soccer team’s greatness again, I wouldn’t be surprised if it comes sooner rather than later. 

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