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Stu Holden: Favorite team going into Rio is...
Tuesday August 2nd, 2016

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil — Language can be a fascinating thing.

Two years after Brazil’s stunning 7-1 World Cup semifinal loss to Germany here at the Estádio Mineirão, the legacy of that epic defeat lives on in the everyday language used to describe any kind of crushing setback in the culture.

When Brazil president Dilma Rousseff was impeached earlier this year, media reports proclaimed that Rousseff “took a 7-1.” All around soccer-mad Brazil, in fact, taking a 7-1 is now used as shorthand to mark everything from corruption scandals to Olympic preparation failures to misfortunes of all types, according to Mauricio Savarese, a Brazilian Associated Press reporter covering sports and politics. 

When beleaguered Brazilian entities have a rare victory, he adds, it’s described as “getting to 7-2.”

Soccer’s influence is so pervasive in the Brazilian culture that you can understand why the Brazilian men’s team’s quest for an Olympic soccer gold medal—the one international title that has eluded the five-time World Cup champion—will likely be the biggest single story for the host nation during the 2016 Games.

Olympics
Men's soccer preview: Neymar, host Brazil eye elusive gold medal

Men’s Olympic soccer—unlike the women’s event—usually isn’t a big deal in football circles. Men’s tournament rules allow a maximum of three players per team over age 23, and FIFA doesn’t require clubs to release players for the Olympics if their nation calls. (As a result, many clubs don’t.) FIFA’s idea is to prevent the Olympics from competing with the men’s World Cup, which is why most global soccer fans will be paying closer attention to the start of the top European leagues this month than to the Olympics.

But in Brazil it’s a different story. Two years after taking the 7-1 on home soil, Brazil has to save its national soccer pride. Given another shot as the host team, it has to win Olympic gold for the first time. And so Brazil has called in the big gun, national hero Neymar, to lead his team to Olympic glory at last.

When you look at the history of the Brazilian men’s Olympic failures, you come away thinking there must be some sort of curse involved. How could a country that has won five World Cups not have a single Olympic title? The list of great Brazilian players who’ve fallen short at the Olympics (see table below) is a Who’s Who of the sport: Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Romário, Rivaldo, Neymar, Vavá, Roberto Carlos, Junior, Dunga, Thiago Silva and more.

Brazil's Olympic men's soccer history

Year Finish World Cup players Manager Gold hopes ended vs. Eventual winner
2016 N/A 1 (Neymar) Rogerio Micale N/A N/A
2012 Silver 5 (Neymar, Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Oscar, Hulk) Mano Menezes Mexico Mexico
2008 Bronze 6 (Ronaldinho, Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Hernandes, Ramires, Jo) Dunga Argentina Argentina
2000 Quarterfinals 3 (Ronaldinho, Lucio, Julio Cesar) Wanderley Luxemburgo Cameroon Cameroon
1996 Bronze 11 (Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Bebeto, Dida, Juninho Paulista, Aldair, Rogerio Ceni, Luizão, Andre Cruz, Giovanni) Mario Zagallo Nigeria Nigeria
1988 Silver 9 (Romario, Bebto, Taffarel, Mazinho, Valdo, Jorginho, Andre Cruz, Ricardo Gomes, Ze Carlos) Carlos Alberto Silva Soviet Union Soviet Union
1984 Silver 3 (Dunga, Mauro Galvão, Gilmar Rinaldi) Jair Picerni France France
1976 Fourth place 4 (Junior, Edinho, Batista, Carlos) Claudio Coutinho Poland East Germany
1972 Group stage 4 (Falcão, Roberto Dinamite, Dirceu, Abel) Antoninho Iran Poland
1968 Group stage 0 Marão Nigeria Hungary
1964 Group stage 1 (Roberto) Vicente Feola Czechoslovakia Hungary
1960 Group stage 2 (Gerson, Jurandir) Vicente Feola Italy Yugoslavia
1952 Quarterfinals 3 (Vava, Zozimo, Humberto) Newton Cardoso West Germany Hungary

* Brazil failed to qualify in 2004, 1992, 1980, 1956, 1948, 1936, 1928 and 1924. It did not enter in 1920 and 1912, and there was no Olympic soccer between 1896 and 1908 and again in 1916 and 1932. 

All told, Brazil’s men’s Olympic soccer failures have involved four World Players of the Year, 22 World Cup winners and 46 players who made it to World Cups for Brazil.

What’s more, Brazil’s excruciating Olympic near-misses have been manifold. A Neymar-led team was the heavy favorite against Mexico in the 2012 gold medal game, only to give up a first-minute goal to Oribe Peralta and fall 2-1.

In 1988, a Brazil team with five future World Cup winners (including Romário, Bebeto, Taffarel and Mazinho) lost 2-1 to the Soviet Union in the final.

The best Brazil Olympic team ever was probably the 1996 edition, which had nine previous and future World Cup winners (including Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos and Bebeto) but coughed up a 3-1 lead and fell 4-3 to Nigeria in the semifinals.

David Cannon/Getty Images

The Nigerians went on to win the gold, which brings up another tradition: In Brazil’s last seven Olympic tournaments going back to 1984, the team that has eliminated the Brazilians from gold medal contention has gone on to win the gold itself.

(There are all sorts of quirks in Brazil’s Olympic soccer history, for that matter. The 1952 team, for example, reached the quarterfinals despite having only 12 players on the roster.)

GALLERY: Best photos of Neymar through the years

On paper, at least, this year’s Brazil team is the heavy favorite to win gold. It has young and emerging stars like Neymar, Gabriel (aka Gabigol) and Gabriel Jesus (being pursued by Manchester City and others). It has a home-field advantage. And it has few potential rivals. Mexico has brought a promising team. So has Colombia. But the class of the field is Brazil, which plays its first game on Thursday in Brasília against South Africa.

Savarese says Brazilian sports fans tend to focus on team sports at the Olympics without many standout individual-sport athletes, and he predicts that Brazil’s men’s games will be sellouts.

Each one will be a referendum on the country’s soccer pride. Winning is the only option—and anything otherwise will be “taking a 7-1.” Again.

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