Brazil’s gold medal Olympians now have chance to shine at World Cup

Most were shocked when Brazil collapsed to a 3-0 defeat against France in the final of the 1998 World Cup.

But for those who had followed the process more closely, it was not a big surprise. The team had consistently been over-hyped, and their entire World Cup build up began to go off the rails two years earlier, at the 1996 Olympics. Brazil approached the Atlanta Games with a swagger in their stride. Confidence had been restored by winning the World Cup in 1994. They had an enormously promising generation of youngsters, and the expectation was that they would cruise to the gold medal in a kind od dress rehearsal for France ’98.

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In the event, though, the Olympic team never really convinced, and they had to settle for the bronze medal. They had looked leaderless, and so the call went up — bring back the captain. In the wake of the Olympic failure, Dunga was recalled to the team.

Deep down, Brazil knew that he would not last the World Cup, that physically he was well past his best. But the 1996 Olympic campaign had left Brazil in a position where they thought they could not play without Dunga — and as the final showed, it was hard to play with him, too. Zinedine Zidane won that duel.

But if the 1996 Olympics blew Brazil off course, perhaps last year’s Tokyo Games will end up having a more positive effect. It has been twenty years since Brazil last won the World Cup, when they lifted the trophy in Japan. And last year’s victory have proved to be an interesting part of the build up to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

It is not just the fact that Brazil won the gold medal. It was the opportunity to feed players into the process and watch them grow. For the first time since 2004 — when Brazil failed to make it to Athens — last year’s Olympics had a full Under-23 qualifying tournament. Before this, and once qualification was assured, Brazil kept together an Under-23 side, and used FIFA dates to play friendlies. There is a huge gap between Under-20 football and the senior level, and Brazil’s Under-23 side filled it well.

The biggest find in the entire process was Mathias Cunha, now of Atletico Madrid. He is one of the growing number of young Brazilians who have made their careers abroad. Playing overseas makes them relative unknown to most of Brazil’s footballing public, and means that they lack a lobby in the local press, pushing for their inclusion in the national side. Brazil’s Under-23 team sorted out that issue for Cunha, who was the star of the qualification tournament and one of the stand outs of the gold medal campaign in Tokyo.

He also appears to be Brazil’s best bet at the problem position of centre forward, and looked instantly at home last year when he was introduced to the senior side. Cunha, though, cannot play in this month’s two rounds of World Cup qualifiers, at home to Chile and away to Bolivia. He misses out though injury — but included in the squad are five of his teammates from the side that beat Spain in August’s Olympic final.

One of them is Cunha’s strike partner Richarlison. The Everton striker is recalled to the squad after missing a few call ups through injury problems — the consequence of a decision of dubious wisdom from Brazil to make him play both the Copa America and the Olympics. It is strange that Everton went along with this, because the player has clearly paid a price for being deprived of a break between last season and the current campaign.

But if the Olympics might be bittersweet for Richarlison, the same is not true for 38-year-old right back Dani Alves. Eyebrows are obviously raised by his age. But Brazil are not looking for their full backs to come up with a succession of gut busting runs up and down the flanks. The current side has wingers. They need something less physically demanding from their full backs — the capacity to construct from deep and drift in to midfield as required. The Olympic tournament made it clear that Dani Alves is still capable of playing this role.

At left back there is a chance for Guilherme Arana of Atletico Mineiro — one of only two home-based players named in the squad — to show that he can be the reserve. Normal first choice is Alex Sandro of Juventus, not called up this time because of a recent injury problem. Arana is in the mix with Alex Telles of Manchester United, and has got in ahead of Atletico Madrid’s Renan Lodi.

The Olympics were an important part of the consolidation of recent Newcastle signing Bruno Guimaraes. The central midfielder was often underestimated in Brazil before the qualifying tournament at the start of 2020, and did not have the easiest time bedding in to European football afterwards. The Tokyo Olympics got his momentum going in the right direction, and he is coming on strongly in the last few months before the World Cup.

Winger Antony is another player with a huge debt to the Olympic process. Two years ago in the qualifying tournament he was still very raw, and was dropped for the decisive game. By Tokyo, with some experience at Ajax under his belt, he was a different proposition, much improved in his decision making, and he, too, has taken the promotion to the senior squad in his talented stride.

And there is even a place in the new Brazil squad for a player who was a reserve just a few months ago in the Olympics — Arsenal striker Gabriel Martinelli. He is another one who moved abroad early, and who has been brought into the national team via the Under-23s. This is now his big chance. The competition is stiff. Names such as Gabriel Jesus, Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Barbosa have been left out of the new Brazil squad, but are still very much in the thoughts of coach Tite.

Martinelli will have to seize his moment. He is surrounded by familiar faces — there are another 11 Premier League players in the Brazil squad, And some others with whom he performed a lap of honour after winning that gold medal in Tokyo.

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