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Brazil finds offense, survives to make men’s soccer elimination round

Brazil scored its first goals of the Olympics just in time to make it to the men’s soccer elimination round, and is a good bet to go even further with just eight teams remaining.

Brazil’s long national nightmare is over—at least for three more days.

Facing a nearly must-win situation to survive in the Olympic men’s soccer tournament, Brazil finally scored after two goal-less games and beat Denmark 4-0 in their group finale on Wednesday in Salvador. By doing so, Brazil won Group A and advanced to a quarterfinal against Colombia on Saturday in São Paulo.

Let’s be honest: Brazil as a sports nation was on edge heading into this game. The collective soccer humiliation of the past two years—the 7-1 World Cup loss to Germany, two Copa América failures, a sixth-place position in qualifying for World Cup 2018—had created the vibe that Brazilian men’s soccer is broken. Nor had 180 minutes of scoreless Olympic soccer against South Africa and Iraq done anything to assuage matters.

When Iraq tied South Africa 1-1 early in their simultaneous game on Wednesday, Brazil was for a moment out of the Olympic knockout rounds. But Gabriel Barbosa, aka Gabigol, finally broke the scoring drought, and a flood of goals followed as Brazil put up four against the hapless, man-bunned Danes (who still managed to finish second in Group A and advance).

Here are my three thoughts on the men’s soccer quarterfinals (Brazil-Colombia, South Korea-Honduras; Nigeria-Denmark; Portugal-Germany):

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On paper, Brazil is miles ahead. 

The hosts, who have never won an Olympic soccer gold medal, should easily win the tournament on paper. Neymar, Gabigol and Gabriel Jesus are a front line worth about $350 million, and the rest of the squad (which has posted three clean sheets) should be good enough to win in a breeze. But games aren’t played on paper, and in the knockout rounds Brazil will have to connect on the attack as it did against Denmark, not as it did in disjointed performances against South Africa and Iraq. We have still yet to see the best of Neymar, but you make your bones in the knockout rounds, and that’s where Brazil’s golden jewel will have to put his name in the history books for a host country craving soccer success.

South Korea is a promising dark-horse. 

Mexico was the defending gold medalist, but the Koreans overcame Mexico’s possession and shots advantage and found a way to eliminate El Tri in a 1-0 victory. There are real incentives for the Koreans here: Any Korean who wins an Olympic medal will get out of mandatory 21-month military service, and it doesn’t hurt to win glory for your country as well. Don’t expect Honduras to roll over for South Korea as the only CONCACAF country to reach the knockout rounds and a team that has done that for two straight Olympics. But the talented Koreans should still advance, as should Brazil, Nigeria and Portugal.

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Without a U.S. men’s team here, might as well turn Nigeria into America’s Team.

The Nigerians spent nearly a month in Atlanta training for these Olympics, and even though travel woes meant they arrived in Brazil just hours before their opening game kickoff, they still beat Japan 5-4 that night to become a sentimental favorite as well. But don’t support these guys just because of their misfortune: Respect them because they’re a terrific team. Nigeria rested some starters in Wednesday’s 2-0 loss to Colombia but still won the group. They have a chance to repeat the memorable run of their countrymen to the 1996 Olympic gold medal—and it says here that Nigeria will reach this year’s Olympic final.