The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro will officially begin on Friday. Having said that, the football tournament begins on Wednesday with the women’s teams already having a go at it, and the national under-23 men’s side will have the unpleasant task of taking on hosts Brazil. Ordinarily, this would turn the whole country into a ball of tension considering what the name Brazil has meant in football historically.
That was then and this is now, and I think we can all agree that the Selecao are a shadow of their former selves. In the old days, with names like Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka, Lucio and Fabiano, you would just know that your team would be put to the sword on the field of play. Brazil was still Brazil. I said they have been fearsome in the past but truth be told, the 2006 World Cup in Germany was probably the last we saw of a Brazil that mesmerised the world and a pleasure to witness. Since then they have just not been the same. They were mediocre in the 2010 World Cup under Dunga, and when they hosted the 2014 edition a lot was expected. Well we all know what happened there.
Now they have a chance to redeem themselves again at home. Although this is not their senior team that will be competing in Rio, they are still Brazil. They should be scary to most of us South Africans. But they are not. If you are afraid of them, you shouldn’t be. We have a young team of extremely gifted players that I believe can take them on. Neymar or not. When I look at the likes of Jody February, Rivaldo Coetzee, Abbubaker Mobara, Deolin Mekoa, Gift Motupa, Tebogo Moerane, Maphosa Modiba, and Keagan Dolly, I see a group that has proven that we do have the talent we need to cause an upset against the big boys. This is why they have qualified for the Games for the first time since Sydney 2000. The good thing about youngsters is that they are fearless. They don’t know that things can go wrong. So they just go and play. We must also remember that a lot of these guys will probably be playing for overseas contracts. And what better game to impress in than against the host nation, where you’ll be guaranteed maximum attention by those who have been sent by European teams to scout for new talent?
A lot of people might also argue that home crowd advantage will be against us, but this is another issue I beg to differ on. Firstly, Brazil proved two years ago that the expectation of a nation that demands not only a win, but a stylish win can be a bit too much at times. They were not only expected to perform well at the World Cup, but they were expected to win it as well. You can bet that the situation is the same again this time around. Secondly, since the Shakes Mashaba-Owen Da Gama-Thabo Senong era started, our national teams seem to perform better away from home than in front of a South African crowd. I do not know what the reason is for this. But that’s just how things are, and it seems to be working (except that devilish Mauritania game that cost us a place at next year’s AFCON).
So all things considered, I think all we need to do against them is just play football. Plain and simple. I’m not saying Owen and the lads need to be arrogant, but I’m saying there is no need to be nervous about a toothless footballing nation. If we can do this on the opening night, then we will have a lot more confidence going into our next games against Denmark and Iraq.
Banyana Banyana are also up first in the women’s tournament, and play Sweden. Our team has done exceptionally well to get to Rio, particularly after the disappointment of missing out on the World Cup in Canada. What SAFA got right was to retain coach Vera Pauw rather than getting someone new to start their own thing. The recent trips to the Netherlands and the USA would have also helped them a lot in terms of their preparations, and I have no doubt that they’ll do well here. Contrary to the men’s team, they will play their last round robin match against the hosts, and will do well to collect as many points as they can before then, lest they’re desperate in a game they might not win.
On a side note, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish Team SA and all our athletes at the Olympic Games all the best out there, and believe they can reach the set target of 10 medals set by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee.