For those who followed their extended buildup, it was clear that Brazil started losing the 1998 World Cup two years earlier in the Atlanta Olympics.
Pride restored after winning USA 94, confidence flying with a highly promising new generation, it was assumed in Brazil that the team would stroll to Olympic gold in 1996 and then head over to France. But for all its bright flickers, the team never entirely convinced in Atlanta, and it was not a total surprise when they threw away the semifinal against Nigeria. They had looked rudderless, leaderless; and so, in the wake of the Olympic disappointment, there was a recall for 1994 captain Dunga.
Brazil were fooling themselves. They had seen in the 1995 Copa America that Dunga no longer had the legs for a major tournament, but psychologically, the Olympics had taken them to a place where they could not play without him. In France 98 they fought their way through to the final, often at the limit, and then showed that against the new prince Zinedine Zidane, they could not effectively play with Dunga either.
Since then, the Olympic tournament has fallen off the FIFA calendar. There is no obligation on clubs to release players. It gives the entire competition a random feel. An under-23 (this year under-24) competition with the option of three overage players, no team is at its strongest, although some are closer than others. It depends on how successful teams have been in securing the availability of their best players.
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This surely devalues the title. The eventual gold medalists will celebrate long and hard, as is their right, but for the rest of us, maybe the most interesting aspect — just as it was for Brazil in 1996 — is how the tournament might have an impact on the senior national side.
Brazil’s hero in the group phase of these games has been Everton striker Richarlison, who has five of the seven goals the team have scored, but his attacking partner Matheus Cunha is even more interesting. Richarlison is already part of Brazil’s senior side, Cunha is not — but probably should be.
Copa America made it clear that Brazil have not solved their long-running problem at centre-forward. Cunha could be the solution, because he offers something different.
The attack of the senior side is built around Neymar. The evidence of the Copa is that the Paris Saint-Germain star badly needs a back-to-goal centre-forward to drive the opposing defence back and create space for him in front of the defensive line. And Hertha Berlin’s Cunha is rangy, quick, two footed and versatile — and most importantly, proficient with his back to goal. He was top scorer in the Olympic qualification campaign at the start of last year, and it is perhaps surprising that he has not already been promoted to the senior squad.
Cunha is certainly showing his value in Japan, although he has wasted some chances and missed a penalty in the first game against Germany. But he opened his account with a cute header in the final group match against Saudi Arabia, and the knockout phase gives him a platform to stake his claim to be a part of the action in Qatar at the World Cup at the end of next year.
And that starts with Saturday’s quarterfinal against Egypt. It could have been Argentina, but after one win, one draw and one defeat, the gold medalists of 2004 and 2008 bow out at the group stage.
Argentina’s failure was narrow — eliminated on goal difference — but not entirely unexpected. Theirs was a much less experienced squad than that of Brazil, with Cadiz keeper Jeremias Ledesma as the only overage player. No one had played a competitive game for the senior side, with two players making brief appearances in a friendly — and neither of them were able to make much of a contribution. Brighton & Hove Albion playmaker Alexis MacAllister was never able to get into the action, while centre-forward Adolfo Gaich cut a lumbering figure. Just two goals from three games tells its own story, especially as they were both bundled home after set pieces.
The team lacked the quality to impose themselves, but it is precisely this that made the tournament an interesting exercise.
Despite winning Copa America, Argentina still have doubts at the centre-back positions. The Olympics, then, was a chance to have an extended look at two young defenders who have been on the fringe of the senior squad: 21-year-old Nehuen Perez of Atletico Madrid, and 22-year-old Facundo Medina of Lens.
They spent time under pressure; in the first game against Australia, when Argentina harshly had a player sent off just before half-time, and especially in the final group game against a very strong Spain team. The latter finished 1-1, with Argentina digging deep to score a late equaliser, but it was a one-sided affair with Spain dictating the rhythm and creating the chances. They could have scored far more than the one goal set up by Dani Olmo and slid home by Mikel Merino.
It was, then, a real test for Perez and Medina, and they did not do badly. The stocky, left footed Medina was certainly impressive, showing good speed of recovery when the defensive line was breached.
In the current context of the Olympic football tournament, it is worthwhile missing out on a medal but gaining a centre-back.