Gold hunt to polish World Cup aspirations

Mano Menezes’s young Brazil squad must get the elusive medal in the cabinet of the 2014 hosts.

Brazil will be banking on their strikers – promising youngster Neymar Jr, back left, and Hulk, second right, one of the three overage players in the squad – to win the gold.
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More than ever, it will be all or nothing for Brazil's national team in the Olympic men's football tournament.

Brazil have always been under pressure to win the gold medal, the only significant title they do not have in football.

But in London there will be a lot more at stake for the five-time world champions.

Brazil will be one of the few teams with most of their top players, and failure at the Olympics would likely cost coach Mano Menezes his job ahead of the 2014 World Cup, which Brazil will host.

There are high expectations from everyone in Brazil, including fans, media and football officials.

The Brazilian federation has already said that winning the gold is the national team's priority and hinted that a disappointing result will inevitably prompt changes as Brazil enters the final stretch of their preparations for the World Cup.

Most of the players in Brazil's Olympic team will likely be in the World Cup squad, too, and the competition in London will give many of the promising young Brazilian players a chance to prove their worth.

"We know that our final evaluation ahead of the World Cup will be done during the Confederations Cup next year, when we will play with a team which won't be restricted by the age limit," Menezes said after announcing Brazil's squad on July 5.

"But it's obvious that we need to play well in the Olympics to reinforce the convictions that we have about the team so far."

Few teams will showcase their top players at the Olympics because it is played with under-23 squads and only three overage players per nation.

But Brazil's young squad will include star players such as Neymar, Lucas, Alexandre Pato, Paulo Henrique Ganso, Oscar and Leandro Damiao.

"We have a strong group, we are taking players who are regular starters for some top clubs today," Menezes said.

"A lot of the young players will get a chance to start earning a spot in the squad. Something that wasn't certain before can start becoming a reality for them during the Olympics."

Brazil's overage players in London will be AC Milan defender Thiago Silva, Real Madrid left back Marcelo and FC Porto striker Hulk.

Many in Brazil praised the squad picked by Menezes for the Olympics, but there were critics, too. "I don't agree with the players he selected," said former Brazil striker Romario, now a congressman. "He should've called players who are more respected abroad. There are plenty of other over 23 players he could've selected."

Among those in the list, Neymar is probably the one who was not doubted by anyone. The youngster is touted as the future of Brazilian football and the player expected to lead the national team at the World Cup.

The Olympics will give him a chance to prove that he can indeed carry the country's hopes for the future. "I'm very happy to have the honor of representing Brazil at the Olympics," the youngster said on Twitter after the final squad was announced.

He had already said that it will be a dream if he can help give Brazil its first gold in football.

Neymar, 20, who was in the list of 23 players running for Fifa's Player of the Year award in 2011, will be one of the tournament's main attractions.

Adding to the pressure for a good result in London, Brazil is heading to the Games only 11th in Fifa's world rankings, the worst-ever position for the five-time world champions.

"The pressure will always be there, we have to live with that," Menezes said. "But I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing, we can use that in our favour."

The team headed to London has played four friendlies in preparation for the Games, beating Denmark and the United States and losing to Mexico and Argentina.

Brazil won the Olympic silver in 1984 and 1988, and the bronze in 1996 and 2008, when Argentina took gold with Lionel Messi after beating a Brazilian team that included former two-time world player of the year Ronaldinho. Brazil are one of the favourites this year along with host Britain and Spain, which won the U21 European Championship last year to clinch their spot in the Olympic tournament.

"Spain traditionally have done a good job preparing a youth team along with the main squad. It will also have some players from the team which won the Euros," Menezes said, adding that Mexico may also be included among the favourites in London.

Not many other traditional football nations will be competing in England. Of the 16 teams in the men's tournament, four will be making their Olympic debut - Senegal, Gabon, Belarus and the UAE. Only three are past champions - Britain (1908 and 1912), Uruguay (1924 and 1928) and Spain (1992). Brazil is in Group C along with Egypt, Belarus and New Zealand.

Menezes has already acknowledged that Egypt will likely be one of Brazil's toughest opponents, especially because it will be the first match.

But he knows that winning a gold medal is the only thing that will really count for Brazil in this year's Olympic tournament.

He is confident it can finally be done.

"We are certain," Menezes said, "that we have a quality group of players who will give the Brazilian national team a chance to fight for the medal at the end."

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