Playing at home, with its biggest star onboard and an unexpected last-minute change at the helm, Brazil is looking to win its first Olympic men’s soccer gold medal in Rio de Janeiro.
No pressure, right?
Coach Dunga opted to include star striker Neymar as one of the three over-23 players allowed in the Olympic squads instead of taking him to the ongoing Copa America. That plan backfired when Brazil was eliminated by Peru in the group stage of the tournament being played in the U.S. That result prompted the dismissal of Dunga, replaced this week by Tite as the senior team coach.
Dunga was also slated to coach in the Olympics, but now the job falls to the usual under-23 coach, Rogerio Micale.
This will be the third straight Olympics in which Brazil brings some of its best players looking for that elusive gold medal. The five-time World Cup champions failed with a team led by former FIFA Player of the Year Ronaldinho in 2008, eliminated by Argentina in the semifinals, and with Neymar in 2012, losing to Mexico in the final.
The pressure to win gold will be higher after the elimination at Copa América, and with local fans still smoldering from the embarrassing 7-1 loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinals.
Brazil opens against South Africa on Aug. 4 in Brasilia, one day before the opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro. Three-time silver medalist Denmark and Iraq are also in Group A.
Local organizers will take advantage of the stadiums built for the World Cup, and the Olympic tournament will be played at seven venues, including in the Amazon city of Manaus.
STARS TO WATCH: Neymar will be the main attraction. The striker is coming off an excellent season with Barcelona and will be rested after skipping Copa America. Gabriel Barbosa, a 19-year-old teammate known as “Gabigol,” will also be showcasing his talents. The Santos forward is touted as the “next Neymar” and is a target of big European clubs.
There is still no official word on some of the other over-23 players expected to be in Rio, but among those who reportedly have shown interest is Sweden striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He’s currently playing at the European Championship and remains without a club after finishing his contract with Paris Saint-Germain.
TEAMS TO WATCH: Defending champion Mexico will field a strong squad, led by Pachuca striker Hirving Lozano, the only under-23 player on the Mexico team in Copa America. The Mexicans will face Germany, South Korea and Fiji in Group C.
Colombia beat the United States in a playoff in March and its squad includes several players from the Copa America squad, including up-and-coming strikers Roger Martinez and Marlos Moreno. The Colombians face stiff competition in Group B from Sweden, Japan and African powerhouse Nigeria, the 1996 Olympic champion.
Looking for its third gold medal, Argentina leads Group D against Portugal, Algeria and Honduras.
Germany will be playing in the tournament for the first time since 1988, when current U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann was on the team. Brazil and Germany could meet in the semifinals at Maracana Stadium, a rematch of sorts of the World Cup semifinal from two years ago.
VENUES: Soccer is the only competition played outside Rio. The other host cities will be Salvador, Sao Paulo, Brasilia, Belo Horizonte and the jungle city of Manaus. Rio will host matches in two venues: Maracana, site of the World Cup final two years ago, and the opening and closing ceremonies for these games, and the Olympic Stadium, which will also host the track and field events.
Sao Paulo will host matches at the Itaquerao Stadium, home of the World Cup opener.
JUNGLE OLYMPICS: Manaus will be one of the most unique cities hosting soccer matches at the games. Located about 1,800 miles from Rio in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, the city was picked as a host by local organizers, even though FIFA said it was not “a suitable first option for a hosting venue.” Rio organizers said they added Manaus in part to “integrate all of Brazil” in the games. The city will host six group stage men’s and women’s matches, including the Colombia-Sweden men’s and U.S.-Colombia women’s games.