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She beat Neymar; here's Natalia Guitler's story

Blog - ESPN FC United
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 By Tim Vickery

Olympic gold would offer Brazil some redemption and some hope

Brazil have suffered two historic defeats on home ground: In 1950, Uruguay won the final match of the World Cup 2-1 in Rio's Maracana stadium and then, in the 2014 World Cup semifinal, there was that extraordinary 7-1 thrashing by Germany.

As they go for the Olympic gold medal, Brazil have a chance to redeem both of those losses at once. To claim the only title that has always eluded them, the hosts will have to win a final in the Maracana against the very opponents who humiliated them two years ago.

This is, of course, an overwrought way of building up a game in the Olympic football tournament, a glorified Under-23 competition that has little credibility now that clubs are not obliged to release players to take part. The standard of the men's competition is extremely low and its outcome has little or no relevance on the balance of power in the global game.

Nevertheless, there is an epic quality to Saturday's encounter because even if men's football at the Olympics is something of a lie, it is a useful one for two reasons.

First, the Games benefit from a strong Brazilian performance. There have been some outstanding local stories among the home medalists but, considering the money invested by the Brazilian Olympic Committee, results have been somewhat disappointing. The dominance of football in the country's sporting culture is unlikely to be challenged and Neymar has been one of the poster boys for Rio 2016, so the event benefits from his team's success.

Second, Brazilian football badly needs a boost. At club and national team level the game is at an all-time low; a survey carried out in Sao Paulo during the Copa Centenario, but before Brazil's shock first round elimination, indicated that an extraordinary 90 percent of people had little interest in the fortunes of the national team.

The Olympic football tournament, then, has given Brazil a chance to reconnect with the fans. But what does it all mean? The point was raised last Sunday in a column by Tostao, a 1970 World Cup winner and now the wisest voice in the Brazilian game.

"Winning the gold medal is almost an obligation because of the weakness of the opposition," Tostao wrote. "Will victory be the start of a recuperation, or will it be an illusion, postponing the search for a better way forward?"

Neymar and Gabriel Jesus starred in Brazil's heavy semifinal defeat of Honduras on Wednesday.
Neymar, left, and Gabriel Jesus, right, have scored six goals between them in Brazil's past three games.

It is a pertinent question, but first comes the matter of claiming gold. The Germans are only the second European team to reach the Olympic final in 20 years -- Spain won silver in 2000 -- and, a little like Brazil, they stuttered early before finding form in the knockout rounds. After conceding two to Mexico and three to South Korea in group play, they kept clean sheets seeing off Portugal and Nigeria.

Germany's defence will now be tested against a Brazil side that, during the course of the competition, has proved one of the oldest truisms in the game: It is when the collective balance of a team is sound that the individual talent appears.

Brazil's first two matches -- goalless draws against South Africa and Iraq -- were appalling affairs. The team's 4-3-3 system clearly did not work and there was a huge gap between the attack and midfield.

Consequently there was no fluidity or constructive passing. The team's attacks were a series of individual breaks from Neymar, Gabriel Barbosa or Gabriel Jesus, which were comfortably snuffed out by the opposing defence.

Things looked up as soon as manager Rogerio Micale tweaked his system for the crunch third game vs. Denmark. Luan came into the attack to form something more like a 4-2-4, but either he or Neymar also dropped to link up with the midfield. At times both have gone deep to combine and, as the full-backs have burst forward, so the two Gabriels have cut infield inside the penalty area.

It has helped enormously that in both knockout games, Brazil have taken an early lead. An ill-tempered game against Colombia would have been much more complicated without an 11th-minute free kick from Neymar that opened the scoring.

And the semifinal against Honduras was effectively over as a contest when Neymar scored the fastest goal in Olympic history after just 15 seconds; the Hondurans' only hope had been to hang on, frustrate and catch Brazil on the break.

Germany will enjoy plenty of possession and if Brazil cannot get in front early, then it will be interesting to see how the hosts react. There is plenty of petulance about this team and, as Tostao noted early in the competition, "they are quick to enter in despair."

But if they can keep their heads and reproduce their best collective football then, come the final whistle, Brazil should be celebrating

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.

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