Olympics: Nervous wait for Selecao's fan base

Left: Neymar walking off the pitch after Brazil's 0-0 draw with Iraq, leaving the hosts needing victory in their final group game against Denmark today. The Selecao had already suffered one disappointment this year with their early Copa America exit
Neymar walking off the pitch after Brazil's 0-0 draw with Iraq, leaving the hosts needing victory in their final group game against Denmark today. The Selecao had already suffered one disappointment this year with their early Copa America exit and he will be hoping to make amends in the Olympic Under-23 tournament. PHOTO: REUTERS ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Left: Neymar walking off the pitch after Brazil's 0-0 draw with Iraq, leaving the hosts needing victory in their final group game against Denmark today. The Selecao had already suffered one disappointment this year with their early Copa America exit
The pride of the Selecao, their five World Cup trophies are displayed at the Museu Selecao Brasileira in Rio de Janeiro.PHOTO: REUTERS ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Neymar-led Brazil have flattered to deceive, but some locals retain faith as Denmark loom

Across two dimly lit adjoining rooms in the Museu Selecao Brasileira is the array of silverware plundered by Brazil and her footballing sons in canary yellow.

There are hundreds of trophies here, tour guide Igor Morales proudly states, though his second assertion that "that's only 10 per cent of everything we've won" is a bit harder to swallow.

Nowhere in the floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets though, is the Olympic gold medal Brazil has spent more than six decades pining for.

This morning (Singapore time), the country that gave the world samba football will face a nervous wait to see if it can qualify for the quarter-finals with victory in its final round-robin game against Denmark in Salvador.

Two uninspiring goal-less draws yielding just two points against South Africa and Iraq so far have left Brazil in a precarious position in Group A. Leaders Denmark are on four points while dark horses Iraq are level on points with Brazil but third on goal difference.

The permutations were enough to make tour agent Salvador Nocera anxious about Brazil's chances of advancing to the knockout round of the Under-23 tournament.

BURDEN ON YOUNG SHOULDERS

There's a lot of pressure on them and it's a very young team with little experience. I think they're more afraid of failing than (of facing the challenge of) winning the gold medal.

SALVADOR NOCERA, 51-year-old tour agent, who has already bought tickets to the Aug 20 final at Rio's Maracana Stadium

The 51-year-old, who has already bought tickets to the Aug 20 final at Rio's Maracana Stadium, said: "There's a lot of pressure on them and it's a very young team with little experience.

"I think they're more afraid of failing than (of facing the challenge of) winning the gold medal."

Still, nothing less than victory would do for a nation whose identity is inextricably linked with the Beautiful Game.

Not all golds are the same for Brazil. The hosts of the Rio Games have climbed to the top spot of the Olympic podium 24 times in their history, including once by judoka Rafaela Silva on Monday. They will likely add to that over the next fortnight in sports like sailing, gymnastics, beach and indoor volleyball.

But there is only one piece of gold that really matters here and the winless drought from successive Olympic football teams has become a 64-year itch. Even more galling is the fact that fierce rivals Uruguay and Argentina have each won Olympic gold twice.

Retired striker and World Cup winner Ronaldo, who could only manage a bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games, described it earlier this month as "a stone in our shoe".

It is a constant source of frustration, particularly given Brazil's pedigree. They won their first trophy in 1914, lifting the now-defunct Copa Roca (contested between the Selecao and Argentina) and have added more in the subsequent decades.

Besides their record five World Cups, Brazil have eight Copa America crowns, four Confederations Cups and another five Under-20 world titles.

But no Olympic gold, sighed businessman Claudio lago, 46, as his friends play footvolley - think sepak takraw with a football - on the Copacabana beach behind him.

Hope, however slim, springs eternal in a city watched over by a towering Christ the Redeemer statue.

The presence of superstar forward Neymar in their ranks, coupled with home advantage, was enough for ardent supporter Iago, who added: "We still believe Brazil will win the gold medal this year. Football is in our blood."

But the nation's collective psyche remains scarred after the humiliating 7-1 semi-final defeat on home soil by Germany at the 2014 World Cup and a group-stage exit at June's Copa America Centenario.

Shop assistant Rodrigo Silva, 38, is unconvinced two years was sufficient to erase that memory. "This isn't a very strong team. Yes, we have Neymar but that's about it. This is one of the worst generations of players we've had."

Even the young have fallen out of love. High school student Joao Victor, 16, said: "We have more important things to worry about than football here. It has given us nothing but pain."

Brazil have made the Olympic final three times, losing on each occasion, including a shock 2-1 upset by Mexico in 2012 despite the presence of Neymar. Nocera said: "Hopefully this time is different and we get a chance to make things right. It would be great if we got Germany, that would be the perfect ending."

Visitors to the Selecao museum in Rio's Barra neighbourhood begin their tour with a seven-minute video chronicling Brazilian football's history. It ends with a montage of the five different captains triumphantly lifting the World Cup trophy.

One imagines the film-makers would happily add another scene if it involves an Olympic gold medal.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2016, with the headline 'Nervous wait for Selecao's fan base'. Print Edition | Subscribe