Brazil 0, South Africa 0.
The hosts’ football team dominated the stat sheet and even played with a man-advantage for the final 31 minutes, but got off to a lackluster start to their campaign at the 2016 Olympics.
“We had the best chances but the ball didn’t go in,” Brazil coach Rogerio Micale said. “And we also have to give credit to South Africa, which has a very determined team and made it difficult for us to impose our game.”
Brazil used to have little-to-no trouble imposing its game on opponents. The free-flowing ball movement became an iconic part of their play. It’s why there is a famous saying about soccer: “The English invented it, the Brazilians perfected it.”
Yet the shine has worn off when it comes to Brazil’s dominance on the world stage recently.
The five-time FIFA World Cup champions, who once appeared out of this world, now look human and beatable. Following a runner-up finish at the 2012 Olympics in London and its 2013 Confederations Cup championship, Brazil has fallen flat.
The Confederations Cup success on home soil was supposed to be a prelude to the 2014 World Cup and a possible sixth championship for the Seleção. Instead, it ended in embarrassment — a 7-1 defeat to Germany in the semifinal.
Their captain and talisman Neymar missed the German defeat after being stretchered off the field with a back injury sustained in the quarterfinal win against Colombia. After yet another successful domestic season with FC Barcelona, Neymar, 24, opted out of the 2016 Copa America in order to play in these Olympics, clearly with a sense of unfinished business.
But Brazil’s big-stage woes continued in the Copa, being eliminated in the group stage. That result prompted coach Dunga, who was supposed to lead the team in the Olympics, being fired.
Still, Neymar recognized the importance of another international tournament, especially on home soil.
“It’s a unique opportunity,” Neymar said. “Not only for me, but for everyone on the team. We know how important this medal is.”
A gold medal this summer would, surprisingly, be the first for Brazil, but it would represent so much more. While it may not be the World Cup, it would be glory in front of their home fans. It would be hope for future dominance once again.
The South African game has already shown that reigning supreme in Rio will be no easy task for the hosts.
Brazil never really threatened in the first half with most of its shots coming from distance, including a right-footed effort by Neymar from just outside the box in the 29th minute. The left winger cut in on his favored right foot and curled an effort on net, but it was easily punched away by South Africa goalie Itumeleng Khune.
The complexion of the game changed when South Africa defender Mothobi Mvala was shown a second yellow card in the 59th minute for a tackle on Brazil’s Zeca — three minutes after earning his first yellow.
New Manchester City FC signing Gabriel Jesus had the game’s best opportunity in the 69th minute, but squandered an open-net chance, instead hitting the post.
“I have the obligation to score that goal,” he said. “I’m not used to missing those chances. I’m disappointed. I won’t be able to sleep tonight because of that one.”
Brazil has earned silver medals in 2012 in London, 1988 in Seoul and 1984 in Los Angeles, and won bronze in 2008 in Beijing and 1996 in Atlanta.
Given the humiliation at their own World Cup two years ago, these Olympics are gold or bust.
“I know that this gold medal has eluded Brazil so far, and we will do everything to try to win it,” Neymar told Brazilian TV ahead of the Olympics. “It’s rare that a country like Brazil, considered the land of football, still hasn’t won this gold.”