Rio de Janeiro, Brazil | AFP |
Brazil has barely got over its World Cup disaster and now it is counting on Barcelona star Neymar to finally deliver a treasured first football Olympic gold medal.
Olympic gold is the only international title to elude Brazil in an illustrious history that has seen A Selecao win five World Cups.
And Brazilian football is in desperate need of a pick-me-up after the humiliating 7-1 semi-final defeat to Germany at their own World Cup two years ago and a group stage exit at the Copa America Centenario in June.
Golden boy Neymar has been untarnished by the failures.
Two broken vertebrae in his back suffered near the end of a quarter-final win over Colombia left Brazil without their talisman against the Germans two years ago.
And as part of an agreement between Barcelona and the Brazilian federation, Neymar skipped the Copa America — which sealed Dunga’s fate as Brazil coach for the second time — to ensure he is fresh for the Olympics.
Starlets in support
Rogerio Micale will take charge after leading Brazil to the under-20 World Cup final last year. Like the fans he also expects Neymar to deliver.
He said: “I want to be dependent on Neymar. What coach in the world would not want a Neymar in their team?
“Neymar has exceeded my expectations. He is appreciated, he’s a good guy with a huge heart especially around the younger players.
“He has shown that he is more than just a great player — he’s a great man admired by everybody.”
Neymar was part of the Brazil side shocked by Mexico in the final of the 2012 Olympics, whilst even the likes of Ronaldo and Ronaldinho have come up short when charged with delivering gold.
However, Brazil are strong favourites to end their wait as on top of home advantage, they also possess by far the strongest squad on paper.
Each team is restricted to just three players over the age of 23 in their 18-man squads.
Wonder kids Gabriel Barbosa and Gabriel Jesus, both tipped to make big money moves to Europe from Santos and Palmeiras respectively after the Games, will support Neymar in attack.
Meanwhile, Paris Saint Germain defender Marquinhos and Neymar’s Barcelona teammate Rafinha are also among Micale’s squad.
Brazil open their campaign against South Africa in Brasilia, one of six Olympic football host cities, before facing Iraq and Denmark in Group A.
Their biggest threat is likely to come from eternal rivals Argentina.
Atletico Madrid’s Angel Correa and Giovanni Simeone — son of Atletico boss Diego Simeone — formed a lethal partnership in scoring 13 goals to win the 2015 South American under-20 championships to qualify.
They face Portugal in the match of the opening round at the Rio Olympic stadium on Thursday in a group also containing Honduras and Algeria.
World champions Germany can call on the experience of the Bender twins Lars and Sven of Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund as two of their overage players.
A return to Brazil holds particularly fond memories for Dortmund full-back Matthias Ginter, who was part of the German squad that won the World Cup two years ago.
Ginter has shown his commitment to the cause by flying almost 20,000km in four days as he headed back from China with Dortmund on Friday before jetting off to Brazil.
“I’m still young and you have to take the chances offered to you. The Olympics are special. We’re all motivated and want to reach the final in Rio,” said the 22-year-old.
Germany start against 2012 gold medallists Mexico in Salvador before facing Fiji and South Korea in Group C.
Group B appears the closest to call as Sweden, Colombia, Nigeria and Japan all start with realistic ambitions of reaching the quarter-finals.