Gold in the Olympic football has never mattered quite as much to the host nation as it does in 2016 to the Brazilians. Although they have lifted the FIFA World Cup a record five times and have the unique distinction of taking part in every World Cup tournament, they have never been crowned Olympic football champions.
“In the country, everybody expects to have a good team and a positive result," said Rio 2016 chief Carlos Nuzman. "Of course if we get the gold medal it will be fantastic. It will be an enormous celebration in the country. Our country needs this.”
Brazil’s Olympic failure is all the more painful because their great South American rivals Uruguay - in 1924 and 1928 - and Argentina - 2004 and 2008 - have both won gold in successive Olympiads.
The pressure on the 2016 squad to succeed has also increased because of what happened when they last welcomed the world on Brazilian soil. That humiliation in the 2014 World Cup semi final is all too fresh in the memory. When asked what lessons his Committee could learn from the World Cup, Nuzman was quick to joke: “Maybe not lose 7-1 to Germany?”
There is another dark chapter in the nation’s football psyche which casts an even longer shadow
Some 200,000 spectators crammed into Rio’s Maracana Stadium for the deciding match of the 1950 World Cup against bitter rivals Uruguay. To the horror of home fans, Uruguay won 2-1. For Brazilians, the defeat remains a national nightmare. In its wake the national team shirt was completely redesigned to the yellow with green trim that is so famous today.
Although football had been introduced to the country in the 1890s, it took them a long time to send a squad to the Olympics.
The Brazilian Olympic delegation to Berlin in 1936 did not include football, but it did feature one man with a huge destiny in the sport. Future FIFA President João Havelange was a powerful swimmer who competed in the 400m and 1500m freestyle. He made a second Olympic appearance at the 1952 Games in Helsinki this time as a water polo player.
By this time his team-mates in the Athletes' Village did include footballers.The class of ‘52 included 17-year-old future World Cup star Vava - the youngest member of the team. Their first match was before the official Opening Ceremony. They started with an emphatic victory, 5-1 against The Netherlands in Turku.
In the first round proper they beat Luxembourg 2-1 at Kotka and then travelled to Helsinki for a quarter-final against Germany, who prevailed 4-2 after extra time.
When Brazil next qualified for the Olympics in 1960, their opening goal in a 4-3 victory over Great Britain was scored by Gerson, later to be the chain smoking midfield genius of the glorious 1970 World Cup winning team.
Gerson also scored a hat-trick against Taiwan in an emphatic 5-0 victory in Rome which meant they only needed a draw against host Italy to advance. They led at half time but the Italians were inspired to three second half goals by superstar Gianni Rivera, and Brazil were eliminated.
They could only draw 1-1 against the United Arab Republic in their opening match in 1964. Although they scored four without reply against the South Koreans they lost to Czechoslovakia, ending their chance of reaching the knockout stages.
Brazil began the 1968 tournament at the Azteca in Mexico City. They lost to Spain, and drew two days later with eventual bronze medallists Japan. In their final match, they threw away a three goal lead against the Nigerians. The match finished 3-3 and Brazil returned home without a win to their name. Two years later, Brazil’s World Cup team produced arguably the best football ever seen to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy.
In 1972, the Olympians came up against Denmark and star player Allan Simonsen who scored twice. Brazil lost 3-2 despite a stunning effort from future World Cup star Dirceu.
Roberto Falcao had appeared as a substitute and started the second against the eventual finalists Hungarians. Dirceu scored again in a 2-2 draw. Another defeat, this time to Iran saw Brazil go home early again.
In 1976, the African boycott had a major effect. As a result Brazil’s preliminary group consisted of only three teams. They opened with a 0-0 draw against East Germany and sealed their place in the knockout phase with a 2-1 victory over Spain in the Olympic stadium. In the quarter-finals they swept the Israelis aside 4-1, but lying in wait were defending champions Poland.
Andrzej Szarmach had burst onto the international scene at the 1974 World Cup.He benefited from a deflection to score the first, and after a Brazilian attack broke down, Poland swept to the other end again where Szarmach was on hand once more to apply the killer blow. Two days later Brazil lost to the Soviets in the bronze medal game.
It was eight years before those famous yellow shirts reappeared at the Olympics. In 1984 huge crowds throughout Southern California ensured "soccer" was an unlikely success story in Los Angeles.
Brazil qualified unbeaten but their team for the final tournament was drawn predominantly from club side Internacional of Porto Alegre. “Not as technically brilliant and original as we were used to seeing in earlier Brazilian selections,” was the verdict of the FIFA experts but they conceded: “As far as organisation was concerned, the Brazilians were the most mature team in their group, homogeneous and united.”
In the quarter finals, they suffered a fright against unfancied Canada and only went through on penalties.-
They needed extra time to beat an Italian team inspired by Franco Baresi in the semis but in the final the Olympic jinx struck as France scored twice in five second half minutes to win.
Brazil were back again in Seoul 1988, conceding only one goal in their three group matches. In the quarter-final, Geovani’s 25 yard effort a quarter of an hour from time was enough to ensure a sweet victory against Argentina.
“The Brazilian play in the second half was proof that they are on the way towards building another outstanding side,” said the FIFA report.
A crowd of 65,000 saw “a great demonstration of what football has to offer” In the last-four clash against Germany as Romario scored for Brazil. The contest went to extra time and then penalties. Brazil’s keeper Claudio Taffarel was the hero as the Germans lost a penalty shoot out.
In the final, Romario gave Brazil a first half lead but Igor Dobrovolski equalised from the spot for the Soviet Union and. in extra time both sides had a man sent off before Yuri Savitchev beat Taffarel to seal gold.
Brazil did not qualify for Barcelona in 1992 but did reach the Centennial Olympics in 1996. Coached by the legendary Mario Zagallo, they included World Cup winners Bebeto and Aldair and other emerging stars such as Roberto Carlos. Even so, their build up was hurried.”There was not much time to mould the squad into a real team, ’’ commented FIFA’s expert observers.
They were in for a unpleasant shock int their opener - a single goal defeat to Japan. Ronaldinho, Juninho and Bebeto scored as they restored equilibrium with a 3-1 win over Hungary. Ronaldinho also scored the only goal to beat Nigeria.
Bebeto was on target twice in the quarter final along with Ronaldinho. In a 4-2 win over Ghana but in the semi finals they faced Nigeria for the second time in seven days.In a bizarre echo of their meeting at the 1968 Olympics, Brazil again surrended a winning position. This time the Africans came back from 3-1 down to win with a golden goal in extra time.
“The reasons for their defeat were their overconfident behaviour, perhaps substituting Juninho and Ronaldinho too early,” ventured the official report.
A hat-trick from Bebeto and a 5-0 victory in the bronze medal match against Portugal was little consolation.
By this time the Brazilian women had also made their bow. They had been disappointing in the 1995 World Cup but at the Olympics the FIFA report described them as “The big surprise of the tournament”. They drew against World Cup holders Norway and finished their group unbeaten but lost to China in the semi finals.
Their squad included Marileia dos Santos, better known by the nickname she wore on her shirt: “Michael Jackson.”
In 2000 men’s coach Wanderley Luxemburgo left nothing to chance and installed his squad in a training camp on the Gold Coast in Queensland.
They opened their campaign against Slovakia. The match was played at the "Gabba" ,the Brisbane cricket ground which had been pressed into service.
They were in for a shock in their next match. “It was not a familiar performance“ was how the FIFA Report described their defeat by South Africa. A 1-0 victory in their third match against Japan took them into the knockout stages despite this setback.
In the quarter-finals they needed a stoppage time goal from Ronaldinho to equalise but it was Cameroon who went through with a “golden goal” in extra time.
The fair play award was no consolation after another bitter disappointment.
“That they possess quality players is without doubt but a question mark must be placed against their mental preparation,” concluded the FIFA Report.
The women made the last four again but lost in the semi final to the USA and again in the third place play off to Germany.
The women’s squad were the only Brazilian footballers to qualify in 2004. Inspired by 18-year-old Marta, they sealed their place in the knockout stages with a thumping win over host nation Greece. They scored five more against Mexico, beat Sweden in the semi final and lost out again to the US.
The men’s Olympic final at Athens 2004 was an all South American affair but without Brazil. Carlos Tevez hit Argentina’s winner against Paraguay
In 2008, Brazil did qualify but the build up was against a backdrop of a classic club versus country dispute which also threatened Lionel Messi’s participation for rivals Argentina.
Bundesliga club Schalke were unwilling to release Rafinha and Werder Bremen did not want to allow Diego to join the Brazilian squad.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter brokered an uneasy peace.
“I appeal to the clubs: 'Let your players take part in the Olympic Games. It would be an act of solidarity in perfect harmony with the Olympic spirit."
Brazil did not concede a goal on their way to the semi final but lying in wait at Beijing’s Workers Stadium were their great rivals Argentina.
Sergio Aguero scored twice in six minutes early in the second half and Juan Riquelme added the third from the penalty spot.
Although Brazil won the third place play off against Belgium, it was still galling for them to have to stand on a lower podium step than Argentina. Like Uruguay 80 years before, Argentina had won successive football gold medals.
Marta’s goals swept the women’s team into the final in Beijing but once again it was the Americans who denied their dreams.
The following year though, the IOC awarded the 2016 Games to Rio. Pele was an ambassador for the bid process and hugged President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as if he’d scored the winning goal when the result was announced..
When the Games came to London in 2012, many regarded the Brazilian men as gold medal favourites. Their line up included Neymar and they certainly looked the part when they beat host nation Great Britain 2-0 in a warm up match at Middlesbrough a week before the Games began.
They duly reached the final at Wembley but Oribe Petralta scored inside 29 seconds for Mexico and extended their lead in the second half. Hulk pulled a goal back for the Brazilians in stoppage time but when Oscar was presented with a golden opportunity to equalise, his header sailed over the bar.
The Brazilian women lost to host nation Great Britain in a group match at Wembley in front of 91,000 but still reached the quarter-finals before they were eliminated by eventual finalists Japan..
Rio will become the first city to stage World Cup and Olympic competitions in close proximity since Munich hosted the World Cup in 1974 two years after the Olympics. Olympic organisers took full advantage of the opportunity to study operations at the World Cup in 2014
“We had a very very good experience and the Organising Committee of the World Cup helped us to open the doors and FIFA too,” said Nuzman.
The draw for both men’s and women’s tournaments take place in the Maracanã a week on Thursday (April 14).
In the women’s tournaments, defending world and Olympic champions USA lie in wait for the host nation.
Brazil’s men know that at some stage they’ll probably have to beat 2008 Champions Argentina or London gold medallists Mexico if they are at last to claim this most elusive Olympic gold.