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.
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.
World Cup players
Gold hopes ended vs.
5 (Neymar, Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Oscar, Hulk)
6 (Ronaldinho, Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Hernandes, Ramires, Jo)
3 (Ronaldinho, Lucio, Julio Cesar)
11 (Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Bebeto, Dida, Juninho Paulista, Aldair, Rogerio Ceni, Luizão, Andre Cruz, Giovanni)
9 (Romario, Bebto, Taffarel, Mazinho, Valdo, Jorginho, Andre Cruz, Ricardo Gomes, Ze Carlos)
Carlos Alberto Silva
3 (Dunga, Mauro Galvão, Gilmar Rinaldi)
4 (Junior, Edinho, Batista, Carlos)
4 (Falcão, Roberto Dinamite, Dirceu, Abel)
2 (Gerson, Jurandir)
3 (Vava, Zozimo, Humberto)
* 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.
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.)
Best photos of Neymar
Neymar attends a training session for Brazil ahead of the Copa America on June 27, 2011 in Campana, Argentina.
Neymar controls the ball during Brazil's Copa America match against Venezuela on July 3, 2011 in La Plata, Argentina.
Brazil's past and present: Pele and Neymar at a Santos FC commemoration match in 2012.
Neymar celebrates at the end of Santos' Sao Paulo state league final match against Guarani on May 13, 2012 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Santos won 4-2.
Neymar heads the ball during Brazil's gold medal match against Mexico on Aug. 11, 2012 in the Summer Olympics at Wembley Stadium in London. Brazil lost 2-1.
Neymar celebrates after scoring in Brazil's FIFA Confederations Cup match against Japan on June 15, 2013 at Estadio Nacional in Brazil. Brazil won 3-0.
Neymar celebrates with Barcelona teammates Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas after Messi scored his third goal against Valencia during their La Liga match on Sept. 1, 2013 at Mestalla Stadium in Valencia, Spain.
Neymar celebrates after scoring Barcelona's first goal during a first leg quarterfinal Champions League match against Atletico Madrid on April 1, 2014 at Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain.
Neymar looks to throw-in the ball during Brazil's International Friendly match against Panama on June 03, 2014 at Serra Dourada Stadium in Goiania, Brazil.
Neymar of Brazil poses during the official FIFA World Cup 2014 portrait session on June 8, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Neymar celebrates a goal during Brazil's World Cup match against Croatia on June 12, 2014 at the Arena de Sao Paulo in Brazil.
Neymar plays the ball during Brazil's World Cup match against Cameroon on June 23, 2014 at Estadio Nacional in Brasilia, Brazil.
Neymar lies injured while teammate Marcelo appeals during Brazil's World Cup quarterfinal match against Colombia on July 4, 2014 at Estadio Castelao in Fortaleza, Brazil.
Neymar answers a question from the media as his eyes well up with tears during a press conference on July 10, 2014 at the Granja Comary training center in Teresopolis, Brazil. Neymar suffered a broken vertebrae during the World Cup match against Colombia one week earlier.
Neymar tries to get around Enzo Roco during Barcelona's Copa del Rey match against Elche CF on Jan. 8, 2016 at Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain.
Neymar celebrates with Barcelona teammates Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi after scoring against Atletico Madrid during their La Liga match on Jan. 11, 2015 at Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain.
Neymar scores a goal for Barcelona against Atletico de Madrid's Jan Oblak during their Copa del Rey quarterfinal match on Jan. 28, 2015 at the Vicente Calderon Stadium in Madrid, Spain.
Neymar celebrates with teammate Lionel Messi after Messi scored during Barcelona's La Liga match against SD Eibar on March 14, 2015 at Ipurua Municipal Stadium in Eibar, Spain.
Neymar heads the ball to score his second goal during Barcolona's Champions League quarterfinal match against Paris Saint-Germain on April 21, 2015 at Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain.
Neymar poses with La Liga trophy after Barcelona's match against Deportivo La Coruña on May 23, 2015 at Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain.
Neymar lifts the trophy following Barcelona's UEFA Champions League Final match against Juventus on June 6, 2015 at the Olympiastadion in Berlin, Germany.
Neymar celebrates after scoring during Barcelona's La Liga match against Getafe on Oct. 31, 2015 at the Coliseum Alfonso Perez in Getafe, Spain.
Neymar scores during Barcelona's La Liga match against Real Sociedad on Nov. 28, 2015 at Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain.
Neymar plays the ball during Barcelona's La Liga match against Espanyol on Jan. 2, 2016 at Cornella-El Prat Stadium in Barcelona, Spain.
Neymar celebrates scoring a goal during Barcelona's Copa del Rey match against Espanyol on Jan. 6, 2016 at Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain.
Neymar celebrates with Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi after Messi scored against Sevilla during their La Liga match on Feb. 28, 2016 at Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain.
Neymar scores the winning penalty kick during the gold medal game between Brazil and Germany on Aug. 20, 2016 at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Neymar collapses to the ground overcome with emotion after his decisive penalty kick clinched Brazil's first Olympic gold medal in soccer on Aug. 20, 2016 at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Neymar soaks up the love after leading Brazil to the Olympic gold medal on Aug. 20, 2016 at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Bolivia goalie Carlos Emilio Lampe checks on Neymar as he kneels on the pitch with his face bleeding after receiving an elbow to the face by Bolivia's Yasmani Duk during Brazil's 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Qualifier on Oct. 6, 2016 in Natal, Brazil.
Neymar plays the ball against Nicolas Otamendi and Pablo Zabaleta during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Qualifier between Brazil and Argentina on Nov. 10, 2016 at Mineirao stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
Philippe Coutinho, Neymar and Gabriel Jesus celebrate a goal against Argentina during Brazil's 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Qualifier on Nov. 10, 2016 at Mineirao stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
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.