By Paul Gardner
Brazil -- the Olympic version -- is turning out to be all that one could hope for. At least at the sharp end of the team, which is where we expect true Brazilian soccer to flourish. Six goals in two games, all of them good goals, a couple of them exceptional.
This has been a frisky Brazil, playing with true enjoyment showing through. At the heart of everything has been the young star Neymar. One does not have to agree with Pele -- who solemnly avows that Neymar is better than Lionel Messi -- to acknowledge that we’re watching a remarkable young player with a glittering range of skills. A player just 20 years old giving us a wonderful reminder of how the sport can, and surely should, be played.
Just a wisp of a boy really -- “easy to knock off the ball” said a TV commentator, seemingly oblivious to the irony of a remark that nicely undermines another phrase so dear to TV commentators -- the one that accuses players of “going down too easily.” No doubt Neymar will have to suffer that calumny when he joins whichever European club he decides upon.
For the moment, let’s concentrate on the artistry of this gifted, slightly built boy. The wonderful touch and assured skill of his free kick that put Brazil in the lead against Belarus, the ease with which it was taken, two short steps, a smooth swing of the leg -- all sweet timing and oh, so precious to watch as the ball obeys and flies on a perfect arc into the goal.
Or that back-heeled pass that led to Oscar scoring Brazil’s third goal? Complicated? Not at all, but you don’t see many passes like that in today’s game -- they’re considered too fancy, they don’t fit in with the speed and power image that has come to rule in our sport.
For a player like Neymar, or Messi, to use his skills he must defy the rustic defenders, the exponents of the thud and blunder school of soccer. We saw Neymar dribble his way beautifully into the Belarus penalty area, there to be violently tackled by Igor Kuzmenok. Neymar was clearly shaken up, but no foul was called. So Kuzmenok, with sheer physicality, murdered a moment of great soccer skill and got his message across: intimidation.
Of course it worked -- later, Neymar made a similar dribble into the penalty area, but this time he didn’t wait to get creamed -- he hurried his shot and put it weakly wide of the near post. Well, you know, if Neymar wants to play with the big guys, he’ll have to learn to take his licks. Less dribbling then, is that what’s wanted?
It is of course the Spanish who have lately been leading the way in making the case for a skill-based, rather than a power-based, game. But not here. They came badly unstuck against Japan in their first game, clearly unhappy with the amazing ability of the Japanese to keep up all-field pressure for the entire game. Does anyone get a chance to catch his breath against Japan?
You might have thought -- I certainly would have done -- that was exactly the sort of test that the Spanish possession game would be able to deal with. Up to a point it did, even when playing with 10 men, but the Spanish were let down badly by their inability to create scoring chances. Just two shots on goal.
Things were supposed to be easier against Honduras -- but now the Spanish ran into a team even more determined than the Japanese had been. We’ve seen plenty of Honduras (indeed, it could be said that Honduras had taken what is arrogantly expected to be the “USA’s place” at the Olympics) and we know they have good players and are capable of playing good soccer.
When allowed to -- which was really only when it launched breakaways -- Honduras did play good soccer. And it defended tigerishly. With the necessary luck. Spain, for sure, should have had at least one penalty kick. Faced with an open goal, Rodrigo hit the bar with his header. But Roger Espinoza’s header for Honduras had also come back off the frame.
The difference here really was the Honduran goalkeeper Jose Mendoza who made several exceptional saves. More’s the pity that he spoiled his performance with a pitiful bout of ham-acting suggesting he had been kicked in the head. He hadn’t -- but this presents a huge problem for the referee, who cannot afford to take lightly anything suggesting a head injury.
A memorable game for Honduras, which now has a good chance of advancing. So too does Mexico which, considering it is one of only four seeded teams, ought to be considered a favorite for the title. Yet Mexico somehow doesn’t seem to get discussed much. This is a very lively team, but the sad thing is that in its two games so far played (0-0 with South Korea, 2-0 over Gabon) it has been playing in a strangely subdued way -- almost as though waiting for the entry of Giovani dos Santos to jazz things up. A second-half substitute in both games, Giovani has done just that -- he scored both of Mexico’s goals against Gabon.
But surely things would have been better had he been on the field from the start? It appears that Luis Tena doesn’t want Giovani and Marco Fabian on the field at the same time -- in which case the starting place must go to the player in form -- and that, right now, is Giovani. Fabian’s dreadful miss of an open goal in the Korea game was evidence of a good player out of sorts.
Team GB plods mercilessly along and now faces Uruguay, which need a win to advance. A tie will do it for GB, and it maybe that plodding along, with the inspiration of a home crowd, will be enough. Uruguay has not impressed so far.
Well, that’s Olympic soccer, a farrago of a tournament, but not without its moments. So far, nearly all of those moments have come from Brazil -- and even more so, from Neymar.
But it is disappointing that, in this tournament for young players, there is a decided lack of teenage stars.