Sao Paulo – — The last time Brazil played a major soccer tournament at home, Neymar was stretchered off the field and then missed an embarrassing loss against Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinals.
Two years later, the Barcelona star looks to rebound from that disappointment at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Although the Olympic soccer tournament doesn’t have the same importance of a World Cup, the Rio Games have a special meaning for the Brazilian striker. Neymar will be one of the games’ biggest stars and will carry the responsibility of leading the five-time world champions to their first soccer gold medal.
“It’s a unique opportunity,” he said. “Not only for me, but for everyone on the team. We know how important this medal is.”
All eyes will be on the 24-year-old striker, who opted to play in the Olympics instead of the Copa America earlier this year. Brazil was eliminated in the group stage of that tournament, a result that prompted the firing of coach Dunga.
Because it’s not an official FIFA tournament, teams are not required to release players for the Olympic tournament, but Neymar and the Brazilian soccer confederation negotiated with Barcelona so he could play in Rio.
“I know that this gold medal has eluded Brazil so far, and we will do everything to try to win it,” Neymar said. “It’s rare that a country like Brazil, considered the land of football, still hasn’t won this gold.”
It will be the second time Neymar will play for Brazil at the Olympics. He led the team that lost the 2012 final to Mexico in London, where the Brazilians were the heavy favorites. Brazil was runner-up twice before, in 1984 and 1988. It also won the bronze in 1996 and 2008, the last time with a squad that featured Ronaldinho and future stars like Marcelo and Thiago Silva.
“Neymar is special, one of the best players in the world,” said Rogerio Micale, who replaced Dunga as coach of the Olympic team. “Any team can benefit from a player like him. He will mean a lot to us. I think that he will be able to lead the youngsters in the squad.”
Neymar will be one of the three over-23 players each nation is allowed to add to its roster. But no other player will attract as much attention — from fans, media and opposing teams — as Neymar.
“I’m honored to be in this team, because I know how difficult it is to win an Olympic medal in any sport,” he said. “With football it’s even more difficult because if you are not the champion, people see it differently.”
Neymar is facing extra pressure after Dunga was fired for the second time from the national team. Without the experienced coach by his side, Neymar will carry the fate of the team, and the striker can become a national hero if he wins the gold, or join a long list of stars — Romario, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, among others — who have failed in the pursuit of the gold.
Brazil will face South Africa, Iraq and Denmark in Group A, making its debut Aug. 4 against South Africa in Brasilia. In the quarterfinals, the hosts could face Colombia or Nigeria.
The final will be played Aug. 20 at Maracana Stadium in Rio.
Love from the tennis set
The “Big 4” of men’s tennis is enthusiastic about the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, unlike their counterparts in golf.
Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal all have participated in the Summer Games in the past, all own a medal, and all talk about that event’s importance to their sport every four years — even if it already has four Grand Slam tournaments every year.
Consider what Britain’s Murray said when he was asked about Brazil the day after winning Wimbledon for the second time.
“I’ve loved being in the two Olympics that I’ve been at,” said the No. 2-ranked Murray, who won a gold in singles at the 2012 London Games. “Rio is obviously a big, big goal of mine, and hopefully I can perform well there.”
The No. 1-ranked Djokovic won a singles bronze for Serbia at the 2008 Beijing Games, then came up just short of a medal four years ago.
No. 3 Federer won a gold for Switzerland in doubles with Stan Wawrinka eight years ago, and a silver in singles four years ago.
No. 4 Nadal won a singles gold for Spain in Beijing, missed London because he was hurt, and appealed to the International Tennis Federation to allow him to compete in Rio after he failed to fulfill Davis Cup commitments because of injuries.
Even if this quartet owns a combined 46 Grand Slam titles, the Olympics still matter to them. Much will be made of the contrast between this group’s interest in the Summer Games and what happened in golf, which will be missing Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy in Rio.
“Olympic Games are the most renowned and most prominent sports event in the history of sport. No question about it. There is no bigger sports event than Olympic Games,” Djokovic said. “For me, as a professional athlete, it’s a huge honor to be part of it.”
Calling a penalty on golfers
The head of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics says the world’s top four male golfers have withdrawn from the games because there is no money to be won — not because of the Zika virus.
“They tried to blame Zika, but the media have shown that they are not coming because there’s no prize money,” Rio organizing committee President Carlos Nuzman said Saturday, speaking with the games set to open in just under three weeks.
Jordan Spieth was the last of the top four to withdraw from the Olympics, citing health concerns and other matters he said were personal. Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy said Zika was the main reason for skipping the first Olympic golf tournament in 112 years.
Their absence could be a setback for golf’s future in the Olympics. IOC President Thomas Bach has said that golf’s future may rest on its ability to get top players to show up.
Golf is guaranteed a spot in the Tokyo Olympics in four years, but could be vulnerable after that.
“Zika is much worse in Florida than in Brazil, and golfers are playing in Florida,” Nuzman said.
Male golfers have also cited security worries, and some have complained that Olympic golf has been wedged into an already crowded tour schedule.
Rio has myriad Olympic problems: Zika, security concerns, severe water pollution and sluggish ticket sales.