Both Brazil And Its Men's Soccer Team Are Slumping At The Rio Olympics

While Brazil grapples with political scandal, an economic downturn and the Zika crisis, its men's soccer team is struggling. Can the national side turn it around at the Rio Games?
August 10, 2016, 4:03pm
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes sports have a weird, almost eerie way of mirroring the real world. If you need an example, look no further than what's happening in Brazil, both with the nation as a whole and with its men's national soccer team.

Two years ago, in the semifinals of the World Cup, an event being held in Brazil for the first time in 64 years, the national team, the pride of the Brazil, the team that has won more World Cups than any other and was favored to win again at home, was decimated by Germany. The match finished 7-1. What should have been a triumphant moment for the Brazilians and their 200 million home fans turned into a catastrophe. A nation, quite literally, wept.

Last week, Brazil again hosted a major international soccer tournament, this one part of the Rio Olympics. Before play began, it looked like a great opportunity for the Brazilian men's team to begin the process of setting things right and reestablishing itself as an elite soccer power. The home team was grouped with South Africa, Denmark, and Iraq. No disrespect to any of those teams, but … none of them are very good.

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FIFA ranked Brazil seventh in its latest world rankings, which came out in July. Denmark, a team that didn't even qualify for this summer's European Championship, is ranked 44th. South Africa is next, at 67th; and Iraq rounds out the group with a world ranking of 99th. Yes, it's important to note that these rankings are for the full national teams, while Olympics teams are made up of players under age 23, with three over-age exceptions. Still, the rankings give a decent sense of each team's relative strength on paper; also, there is no universe in which Brazil should be worse at soccer than Iraq.

In Brazil's opener, the home team didn't batter South Africa, nutmegging opposing players to a crowd shouting Ole! Instead, it limped to a scoreless tie. Three days later, on Sunday, Brazil played Iraq. Again, it struggled. One moment stands out: In added time, with the score tied at 0-0, Brazilian midfielder Renato Augusto found himself unmarked in front of the Iraqi goal. The Iraqi keeper was out. All Renato Augusto had to do was kick the ball into a 24-by-8 foot rectangle.

He missed. I can't show you the replay here for legal purposes, but trust me when I tell you it was one of the most breathtaking misses I've ever seen. My brother would have made the shot.

This pretty much sums up — Eric Krakauer (@bigsoccerheadNY)August 9, 2016

Now for the part where art kind of mirrors life. In 2013, Brazil's economy was booming and the ruling Worker's Party had, over the previous decade, made serious progress in areas like education, job growth, and alleviating poverty. Then, it all came crashing down. Just prior to the 2014 World Cup, the largest political scandal in Brazilian history broke, which involved more than five billion dollars in laundered money, bribes, and kickbacks.

Last year, things went from bad to worse as Brazil was hit by the Zika virus, and the economy continued to crash. In June of this year, Rio de Janeiro's governor announced that his state had no money. He warned of a "total collapse in public security, health, education, transport and environmental management." The Olympics were just weeks away.

Obviously, the success of Brazil's soccer team is not a function of the nation's economy or political situation. Some of the team's best, most memorable years came during a period when the country was impoverished and under a dictatorship. But add the national turmoil to a domestic soccer program that has been in decline for decades, and things become particularly complicated for the national side. You can begin to see how it might fail, too.

Brazil's national team has always been a kind of manifestation of the Brazilian spirit, a celebration of life's joys, particularly the joy of a simple game played beautifully. But as life in country has become more fraught, the national team has become less a national reflection than a needed tonic. Saddled with a bad economy, an untrustworthy government, and an ongoing health scare, Brazilians are looking to the team to crowbar some joy into their everyday lives.

The squad has at least one more chance to do just that, provided it can beat Denmark tonight in its final group game. With a win, the team could still advance to the next round, and maybe, just maybe, make fans forget about Zika and everything else, at least for a few hours.

No pressure.

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