Soccer

Neymar hopes to cure Brazilian heartache with Olympic gold

Brazil's Neymar kicks the ball against Peru during a Copa America Group C soccer match in Temuco, Chile, on June 14, 2015.
Brazil's Neymar kicks the ball against Peru during a Copa America Group C soccer match in Temuco, Chile, on June 14, 2015. AP

Two summers ago, 200 million Brazilians went into mourning after their beloved national soccer team was humiliated 7-1 by Germany in the World Cup semifinals in the hilly city of Belo Horizonte.

It was Brazil’s most lopsided loss in a major tournament since 1920, its first loss on home soil since 1975, and, by all accounts, the most disgraceful day in Brazilian sports history.

Front-page headlines mirrored the fans’ anguish:

Maior Vergonha da Historia! (Biggest Shame in History) screamed the cover of sports daily Lance.

Vexame Historico (Historic Humiliation) said Folha de Sao Paulo.

Um Vexame Para a Eternidad! (A Humiliation for All Eternity) read the Correio Brazileinnse.

Just a day earlier, before the match, news helicopters filled the sky as thousands of yellow-clad fans lined the streets and waved Brazilian flags while their national heroes drove by in the team bus on the way to Estadio Mineirao. Many fans wore “Forca Neymar” caps and Neymar jerseys, in honor of their injured superstar, and a local newspaper featured a cut-out mask of Neymar with the caption: “Today, We Are All Neymar!”

Neymar, who missed the match with a fractured vertebra, has not forgotten the somber mood of the nation after the loss. He is determined to help bring joy to those once-sad faces with an Olympic gold medal — the one soccer prize that has eluded the Brazilian national team.

In fact, these Rio Olympics mean so much to him that when his club team, Barcelona, forced him to choose between playing in Copa America or the Olympics this summer, he chose the Olympics.

“Barca didn’t want me to play both competitions and asked me to pick one,” Neymar told reporters in Spain last week. “I chose the Olympics. Sometimes you have friction with your club, but with Barcelona it all ended well. They let me pick which championship, and I opted for the Olympics.”

Brazilian fans could use some celebrating after a shocking loss to Peru in the Copa America Centenario earlier this summer, a loss that contributed to the firing of head coach Dunga.

Neymar is one of three players over the age of 23 on Brazil’s Olympic roster, along with winger Douglas Costa of Bayern Munich and goalkeeper Fernando Prassi of Palmeiras. Other key players include Neymar’s Barcelona teammate, Rafinha, Willian of Internacional and Marquinhos of Paris Saint-Germain. On paper, the Brazilians have a winnable group, with their opponents being South Africa, Iraq and Denmark.

Things aren’t looking as good for Argentina, which last won gold in the 2008 Olympics but has been in turmoil in recent months.

Gerardo Martino resigned as Argentina’s national team coach after the team’s penalty-shootout loss to Chile in the Copa America Centenario final, its second Copa final loss to Chile in two years. Five-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi announced afterward that he was resigning from the national team.

Martino said he quit because of the financial mess surrounding the Argentine Football Association and a lack of preparedness for the Olympics. Julio Olarticoachea, a defender on Argentina’s 1986 World Cup championship team, was named Martino’s replacement. He had been coaching the youth teams.

Gerardo Werthein, president of the Argentine Olympic committee, said they had trouble assembling a team for Rio because some clubs were not releasing players. Argentina is scheduled to play a tuneup match against Colombia at FAU Stadium in Boca Raton on Thursday.

Other Olympic men’s teams to watch include Germany and Portugal, which surely will be inspired by the senior team’s recent Euro 2016 championship.

In the women’s competition, the reigning World Cup champion United States remains the heavy favorite. The Americans, led by coach Jill Ellis, a Palmetto Bay resident, are attempting to be the first women’s team to win the World Cup and Olympic gold medal back-to-back. The U.S. men’s Under-23 team did not qualify for the Olympics for the second time in a row, so all the pressure is on the women’s team.

Fourteen players from the U.S. women’s 2015 World Cup team are back for Rio.

In Olympic soccer, the men’s tournament is an Under-23 event (with three over-age players allowed), while the women compete with their senior national teams.

Although a World Cup trophy might be perceived as a bigger soccer prize than an Olympic gold medal, Ellis said her players are highly motivated.

“One of the things I’ve really looked into is why has a repeat never been done,” Ellis said. “Is it change of personnel, complacency? I had individual meetings with players in this last camp, and one of the questions I posed to the players was, ‘Are you as hungry? Do you feel as focused?’ And the resounding response was, ‘Yes.’ I think the players want to make history, be the first to go back-to-back.”

Among the U.S. players to watch are rising stars Crystal Dunn and teen phenom Mallory Pugh of Colorado, who turned 18 in April. Pugh is the only non-professional player on the team and will be an incoming freshman at UCLA. She has been a star on the U-17 and U-20 teams, made her senior debut in January and leads the team in assists with seven this year. Pugh’s speed and crosses make her a dangerous threat.

“For a player that age it has to be a combination of their soccer ability and their psychological profile,” Ellis said of Pugh. “Mal has ice in her veins. She doesn’t get rattled. She’s very competitive. Always has a smile on her face and is enjoying it. For her, the hardest part was January, didn’t know people, socially was very different. She’s settled in, and her performances in games and the training ground have earned the respect of her peers. It’s a huge compliment to her parents, who have done a magnificent job raising her.”

Olympic groups

Men

A: Brazil, South Africa, Iraq, Denmark

B: Sweden, Colombia, Nigeria, Japan

C: Mexico, Germany, Fiji, South Korea

D: Argentina, Portugal, Honduras, Algeria

Women

E: Brazil, China, Sweden, South Africa

F: Canada, Australia, Zimbabwe, Germany

G: USA, New Zealand, France, Colombia

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