There is something entirely random about the Olympic men’s football tournament.
With clubs not being required to release their players, this is hardly a test of who is better at youth level – men’s football at the Games is typically an Under-23 competition with three major players, this times it is less than 24 years because of the delay of the year. Instead, it all comes down to whether or not teams can enlist the services of their top eligible players.
There is certainly something to think about as to whether the competition is worth it, but there is no doubt that Saturday’s final is well worth it. It is not only a meeting of two attractive teams, but Brazil against Spain has also become a battle of ideas, a heated contemporary rivalry with – certainly on the Brazilian side – a lot of needles in there.
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Almost a decade ago, at the end of 2011, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona met Santos in the Club World Cup final. Much to the astonishment of many Brazilians, Barcelona clinched a breathtaking 4-0 victory. During the post-match press conference, Guardiola stayed in the pen. His team handled the ball, he said, the same way his grandfather told him Brazil used to.
It is hardly surprising that this provoked a reaction. With its patient passing game, Spain was then the reigning world and European champion, a few months away from successfully defending its continental title. But it wasn’t just their triumphs that put the Brazilians in check. It was the swagger with which it was done. The Brazilians are rightly proud to be the only five-time world champions. But there was also pride in being seen as the spiritual guardians of what is called “the beautiful game” abroad, and in Brazil it is called “the art of football”.
But with many Brazilian coaches now obsessed with the counterattack, here are the Spaniards claiming to usurp them – to win and then brag about how they did it.
Admittedly, many Brazilians were a bit bored with the Spanish possession game. Where Barcelona had Lionel Messi to provide the individual fantasy and the labyrinthine, destructive dribbling, in his absence Spain’s demise could sometimes be stale. But to others it could be dazzling, a constant and dynamic exercise in geometry, new triangles constantly forming as two players exchanged passes and a third moved into position to receive.
But some Brazilians affected not to see any beauty in it. In the last few Euros, there have been experts on Brazilian television totally unable to hide their desire to see the Spaniards defeated, punished for the supposed arrogance of their faith in a passing game.
Two Spanish coaches have recently worked in Brazilian national football, both supporters of a possession-based style. Guardiola’s former assistant Domenec Torrent was in charge of the Rio Flamengo giants, while further south the Internacional went with Miguel Angel Ramirez, fresh out of an exceptional period with Independiente del Valle in Ecuador.
Neither lasted long. Neither of them had much time to build. Both felt the hostility of an environment many were willing to fail in, eager to conclude that Spain’s possession game was not all it was meant to be.
It is striking how few great games have been between the two national teams lately. There was of course the final of the Confederations Cup in 2013. It is indeed the tournament where the Spanish crown started to slide. They were irresistible for 45 minutes of a group game against Uruguay, and never so good again. When Brazil beat them 3-0 at the Maracana, it marked the end of the era of Spanish domination – but it did not mark the start of a new Brazilian era. In the next two World Cups, just like in the previous two, Brazil’s campaign ended as soon as they met a Western European side in the round of 16. And that’s what helps add extra spice to Saturday’s Olympic final.
There is of course a gold medal at stake. But the game is also a pointer to Qatar 2022. It pits a promising Brazilian team against a challenge that is not entirely foreign to that which the senior team will face. the end of next year.
Where other European teams – like the German team Brazil met in their opener – have been weak, Spain is strong. Much of it has to do with the timing. The Spanish season starts relatively late, which means that clubs have been more willing to release players and Spain brought a team with some of the young Euro lions where, in the semi-finals, they were clearly the better team than the future Italian champions.
Unlike Mexico, which was disappointingly cautious against Brazil on Tuesday, Spain will come out to play, to have the ball, to work on its triangles, to ask questions of the Brazilian defense. Do they need too many chances to score a goal? Will they have many chances against a Brazilian defense who has conceded only three goals in five matches? And at the other end, can they hold Brazil’s attack in an open space?
Doubt is particularly relevant if center-forward Matheus Cunha is fit to return, as his versatility and return to goal open up attacking options that were not present in the goalless draw against the Mexicans. Richarlison is the top scorer, but Cunha is the only one on target in knockout matches. Along the attacking line, Brazil could take advantage of a rare chance to launch counterattacks against an opponent whose game plan will not be built around caution.
The prospect is for a better final than the Olympic tournament probably deserves. And a game whose ripples will be felt until the end of Qatar 2022.