With Brazil chasing an elusive gold medal, football in the Rio Olympics will be much more than a sideshow.
Neymar’s Brazil will not be appearing in Rio de Janeiro in any of their Olympic football group matches at the city’s own Games in August.
Brazil have never won Olympic gold and football, usually a sideshow at the Games, will be massive mainstream this time around.
The draw, at Maracana, placed the hosts in first round Group A along with South Africa, Iraq and Denmark and they will be favourites to top the mini league and progress to the knockout stage via Brasilia again and Salvador.
Finishing No1 would mean a quarter-final flight down to the Corinthians Arena in Sao Paulo and a clash with the runners-up from a Group B which features European under-21 champions Sweden, Colombia, Nigeria and Japan.
Finally then, in the semi-finals, would Brazil finally come to Rio itself . . . with the holy grail beckoning, again at Maracana, in the gold medal final on August 20.
Only if Brazil lose in the semi-finals could they return, for the bronze medal match, to Belo Horizonte, scene of their World Cup humiliation in 2014.
Germany, seeking to emulate their seniors’ triumph in Brazil at the World Cup two years ago, are in Group C in a tournament swansong for their veteran coach, Horst Hrubesch. Seeking to spoil the occasions for him will be Fiji, South Korea and Olympic champions Mexico.
Four years ago El Tri defeated Brazil, surprisingly, by 2-1 in the Olympic final at Wembley.
Argentina, possibly the greatest threat to Brazil’s ambition, were drawn in Group D, matched with Honduras, Algeria and the outstanding young Portugal team who were runners-up in last year’s European under-21 finals.
The tournament is restricted to players aged under 23 but coaches have the option of selecting three over-age players. Most coaches do not risk the overage route, partly not to disturb team spirit but also because picking senior players means also picking an availability fight with their clubs.
The Olympic Games is not a protected tournament in the FIFA international calendar so nations cannot demand players’ release.
This is one crucial reason why the Brazilian confederation has already agreed with Barcelona not to select Neymar for the Copa Centenario in the United States in June. Barcelona, in exchange, will reluctantly release Neymar for the Olympics which is of paramount importance to both players and Brazilian fans.
Already Neymar’s image has been removed from Copa Centenario promotional material and replaced by that of David Luiz.
Olympic champions United States will be odds-on favourites to win the women’s Olympic gold medal for a fourth successive time and fifth in all. The US won the Women’s World Cup last year and their pre-eminent status owes much to the fact that there are no age limits in the women’s tournament.
Great Britain do not compete in either men or women’s competition, sports politics issues back home being a far greater blow to the women – third in ‘their’ World Cup – than the men.
The Olympic tournaments feature a total of 58 matches, with 32 for the men, and 26 for the women being played in Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Manaus, Salvador, Sao Paulo plus both the Olympic Stadium (formerly Estadio Havelange) and Maracana in Rio de Janeiro.
The women launch the entire Olympic competition on August 3 with the men opening on August 4. Football kicks off early to squeeze its schedule into the Games programme. Both finals will be played at the Maracana, with the women going for gold on the August 19 and the men a day later.
Rio’s Olympics, the first in South America, will be opened formally on Friday, August 5, with the Closing Ceremony on August 21. Both ceremonies will be staged in Maracana.
Men’s Olympic tournament
Group A: Brazil, South Africa, Iraq, Denmark
Group B: Sweden, Colombia, Nigeria, Japan
Group C: Fiji, South Korea, Mexico, Germany
Group D: Honduras, Algeria, Portugal, Argentina.
Women’s Olympic tournament
Group E: Brazil, China, Sweden, South Africa
Group F: Canada, Zimbabwe, Australia, Germany
Group G: United States, New Zealand, France, Colombia.