Michael Phelps 19, Brazil football 0.
In appropriate the comparison may be, inaccurate it is not. As often happens during the Olympics, agony and ecstasy are minutes from each other. Since Phelps’ adding another gold to his overflowing jewellery box happened at 8:26 am India time on Monday and the Brazil men’s team lead by Neymar was held 0-0 by Iraq six minutes later, this proved too tempting to resist.
At a stadium named after Garrincha, that man who dribbled for fun and helped Brazil win two World Cup titles, Neymar and mates came unstuck again. What is more striking is the fact that in nearly 200 minutes of football, the hosts haven’t scored. After South Africa, it was Iraq’s turn to steal a point from a team whose desperation to break the Olympics jinx of never winning gold in football is perhaps preventing it from playing to potential.
After making goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune an even bigger hero than he is in South Africa, Brazil gave Iraq shot-stopper Mohammed Hameed his 90 minutes of fame. The 23-year-old goalie made 12 saves.
“Brazil 0 Iraq 0. Neymar and Co 2 games, no wins, no goals, no credibility, no hope of gold,” tweeted journalist Keir Radnedge from Brasilia. In another tweet, he said: “Generous applause for Iraq in Brasilia.” Brazilians do that when their team underperforms. A crowd of over 58,000 did at half-time at Belo Horizonte’s Estadio Mineirao when Germany were leading 5-0 in a World Cup semi-final Brazil want to forget.
Brazil must win their last group match against Denmark, who beat South Africa 1-0 earlier on Monday and have four points on Thursday. Iraq and Brazil have two points from two games. Should Iraq beat South Africa and get a favourable result from the Brazil-Denmark game, they could even qualify for the quarter-finals. What a story that would be!
Now, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that the Brazil women’s team has a better chance of breaking the Olympics gold hoodoo than the men. The crowd in Rio at Brazil games has already started chanting Marta Vieira da Silva, or simply Marta, is better than Neymar. Man smart, woman smarter?
“We know Neymar is our best player right now and he is fantastic, we support him and he supports us but we’ll leave the comparison to the fans,” is how Marta, often called ‘Pele in skirts’ has reacted.
Brazil beat China 3-0 in their women’s competition opener and Sweden 5-1 with Marta scoring twice. Already in the quarter-finals, Brazil play South Africa on Wednesday (6:30am IST) in their last group game.
This is Marta’s fourth Olympics and she has silver medals from Athens and Beijing; in London, Brazil lost in the quarter-finals.
Marta is 30 but time seems to have dimmed none of her pace, power, skill and technique to set up and score goals. She’s scored 100 of them in 101 internationals. With 15 goals, Marta is also the highest scorer in the history of the women’s World Cup having played three editions of the competition; her best being a runners-up medal, the Golden Ball and Golden Boot awards in 2007. She’s won the Fifa Women’s Player of the Year five consecutive times and that’s a peak football’s other famous ‘M’, one with a bleached blonde hair-do now, is yet to scale.
As a child, she played with the boys and was quoted by The Guardian as having said: “I was never the last to be picked when teams were selected.”
Striker Sofia Jakobssen, who played in the 1-5 rout on Saturday, has been quoted by The Guardian as saying this of Marta: “With her technique and speed, she could do anything she wanted on the field. I still think she’s the best player in the world. I wanted to be like her but of course I didn’t have all the same attributes. It’s like a men’s player wanting to be like Messi – you can’t copy someone like that.”
In a country with little support for women’s football, Marta is now as inspiration for girls and boys to take up the sport. She would be that and more should Brazil go all the way to the Maracana, a football cathedral where she was the first woman player to have her feet imprinted in cement, on August 19 and win gold. Now, that too would be some story.