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Selecao looking to finally win elusive gold

ESPN staff
August 8, 2012
Can this Brazil team end the country's Olympic hoodoo? © Getty Images
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Brazil have made it into their third Olympic football final and have a burning desire to win the only major competition to have eluded them. In 1984, the Brazilian national team reached their first Olympic final only to lose out to France and be left with consolation of a silver medal. After the successes of the Selecao in the World Cup and the years of dominance under Pele, Zico and the golden generation of the 1960s and 1970s, Olympic gold is still something that is highly coveted in South America.

The history of the Olympic tournament has always had a distinctly European feel to it. From the early days of Great Britain's participation with only a few hundred spectators through to the emergence of the World Cup as the premier international competition, sides from outside of the continent have, until recent years, struggled to assert themselves.

The first serious tournaments, in 1924 and 1928, were taken by Uruguay but South American sides found themselves marginalised in the following years. Following the Second World War, Eastern Europe took control and Communist bloc nations dominated. The main reason for the success of the East, according to journalist Andrew Downie, was that "Olympic competitors were supposed to be amateur and those playing for Soviet-backed nations were, as state employees, ostensibly unpaid for their sporting endeavours".

Indeed, Eastern European nations won every competition except one between 1952 and 1988 but, in Los Angeles in 1984, Brazil gave notice that they were ready to end that long period of dominance. They were aided by a FIFA ruling that allowed professional footballers to play at the Games - although this was constrained to those with fewer than five international caps as football's governing body did not want the World Cup to be overshadowed - and also a Communist boycott that saw favourites East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Soviet Union out of the competition, with West Germany, Italy and Norway called in.

The Communists' decision to boycott the Games came at a time of heightened political tension between West and East and was a direct response to US President Jimmy Carter's refusal to send American teams to Moscow in 1980 after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. With divisions among the top teams, the path to glory was clear for Brazil, a country with a rich history of success at international level.

Yet the message of unity had not spread across all of Brazil. With the domestic clubs still holding the power over whether to release their players or not, a decision to withhold the leading stars of the Selecao was taken and the Brazilian football federation had to take alternative measures. Its response was to call up the entire Internacional squad - a club who had won the Kirin Cup in Japan but had just been knocked out of the domestic league competition.

Inter had started to consolidate their name on the world stage, and were now given a prominent place in the Los Angeles Olympics, with future World Cup-winning captain Dunga among their number. The result was almost astounding.

Taking on Saudi Arabia (3-1), West Germany (1-0) and Morocco (2-0) in the group stage, Brazil cruised through to the knockout round and would meet minnows Canada in the quarter-finals. A major shock was in the offing as Dale Mitchell put Canada ahead in the second half, although Gilmar Popoca equalised to take the game to extra-time. Still at 1-1 after 120 minutes, a penalty shootout was used for the first time to decide the outcome and Brazil won 4-2, with Mitchell and Mike Sweeney seeing their spot-kicks saved.

Brazil marched on. Facing an Italy side in the semi-finals with a host of players - notably Franco Baresi, Daniele Massaro, Aldo Serena and Pietro Vierchowod - on the brink of stardom, Brazil went ahead through the prolific Gilmar Popoca before Pietro Fanna's equaliser. This time only extra-time was needed before Ronaldo - not that one - put them into their first ever Olympic final with a goal in the 95th minute.

Brazil outfoxed Saudi Arabia, but France proved harder © PA Photos
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Brazil would take on France in the final at the Rose Bowl and interest was at an all-time high, even if the host nation was not quite as enthusiastic as others. Based in Pasadena, George Vecsey of the New York Times captured the mood of America when he wrote: "Just before dusk on Saturday night, the Firestone blimp lumbered into the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains investigating a report of a football game in the Rose Bowl. As the balloon dipped low, the cameraman in the belly might have reported back to his network.

"'Uhhh, there must be a mistake, boss,' he could have said. 'There's a huge crowd in the Rose Bowl, and they're screaming and doing the wave and eating hot dogs, but there's something wrong. These players are normal-shaped and they aren't wearing helmets. And they're kicking a round ball!'... 'Thanks for warning us,' the man at network command probably said. 'Just a bunch of ethnics watching a soccer game. We'll go with the synchronized swimming re-runs. It's a good tie-in with our fall programming.'"

The Americans may not have taken to 'soccer' completely - the proof was in the fact that the entire pitch had to be painted bright green after a groundsman treated it with the wrong chemical, while major broadcaster ABC ignored the event almost completely - but the crowd of 101,799 was the largest ever to assemble in the United States to watch a game. Indeed, the attendances for the entire tournament reached over 1,421,627 million for the 32 games at an average of 44,500 per game.

The Olympic football tournament had arrived, yet Brazil were not able to use it to their advantage and the gold medal would elude them. France, whose "A" team had captured the European Championship only weeks earlier, held firm and won the final 2-0 with a header from Francois Brisson and Daniel Xuereb's rebound in the 55th and 62nd minutes.

As France coach Henri Michel revealed after the game: "We were just more wired tonight." It was the first gold medal for the West since Italy beat Austria in the 1936 final, but Brazil were left wondering if South America would ever be back on top of the Olympic game.

What happened next? Brazil reached another Olympic final in 1988, in Seoul, and football continued its rise with over 729,000 spectators watching the 32 matches on offer. Soviet Union returned to end the Selecao dream with a 2-1 win and Brazil suffered another memorable defeat at Atlanta 1996 at the hands of Nigeria. Having led the semi-final 3-1 with 14 minutes to go, they lost due to a golden goal from Kanu three minutes into extra-time.

Brazil's next chance to win gold did not come until 2008 when they picked up a bronze after losing 3-0 to eventual champions Argentina in the semi-finals. Tipped to finally break their Olympic jinx at London 2012, they reached the final against Mexico and, win or lose, will carry the weight of the nation on their shoulders once more when they come out on home soil in 2016 during the Games being held in Rio de Janeiro.

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