The one that got away…

(Article first featured on Lovely Left Foot 16/08/12)

With the final curtain now drawn on the fantastic London Olympics, Brazil’s young charges will still be scratching their heads thinking about what could have been.  Coming into the Games, the most successful side in international history had just one title missing from their brimming trophy cabinet.  But, as it had done on 12 previous occasions, that elusive gold medal once again evaded them with Mexico instead claiming their maiden Olympic crown in front of 86,000 fans at Wembley.

Following Spain’s early exit, dark horses Uruguay flattering to deceive and the mythical rise of a nascent Team GB predictably falling short at the quarter-final stage, Brazil could have forgiven themselves for thinking that their golden opportunity had finally arrived.

Oribe Peralta, though, had other ideas.  It took just 28 seconds into the final for the thunder of the champions-elect to be well and truly stolen.  Rafael dawdled on the ball for too long and his undercooked pass to Sandro allowed the lively Javier Aquino to nip in and free Peralta.  The Santos Laguna frontman needed no invitation and fired in at the near post with unerring accuracy.

An unbalanced Brazil were unable to find a response, prompting coach Mano Menezes to bring on Hulk after half an hour – a decisive move but nonetheless a public admission of error.  The change did add a more direct threat but it was Hulk who failed to track Peralta’s run, allowing the striker to piss on the parade further still with a free thumping header from Marco Fabian’s corner to make it 2-0.  Hulk may have made amends with a consolation goal, giving the Seleçao a glimmer of hope, but with Oscar’s missed header Brazil’s dream of a first Olympic gold went up in smoke.

Hot favourites before and after, the knee-jerk reaction from some factions will be to brand the campaign a failure and call for the head of Mano Menezes.  An uninspiring Copa America does indeed heap the pressure onto Menezes but Olympic silver is hardly catastrophic for a work clearly in progress.

The green shoots of success are there to be seen.  Boasting the undeniable talents of Chelsea new boy Oscar and the sensational Neymar – albeit only showing bursts of his phenomenal talent during the games – plus the potential of Leandro Damiao, Lucas Moura and Ganso, there is plenty to be exciting about.  Going into the final, the side had scored three goals a game and the flashes of brilliance shown (particularly against Belarus and in the first half against Egypt) had pundits falling over themselves with praise. Garth Crooks was so bamboozled by their free-flowing football that he claimed they played a 4-2-1-3-1 formation!

The oft-used cliché of Brazil’s defensive weakness relying on out-scoring their opponents is generally false – Germany, a side renowned for their defence capabilities, have conceded more goals at world cups than Brazil despite having featured in two fewer tournaments.  However, in this case the saying ran true.  If sloppy second half defending against Egypt in the opener wasn’t enough warning, then surprise package Honduras’ near quarter final upset should have been.  Yet Peralta’s well taken goals in the final were aided by an almost comical laxness that had Lawro frothing at the chance to roll out ‘lazy Brazilian defending’ stereotypes.

Alongside shoe-in Thiago Silva, fellow centre back Juan looked out of his depth, not aided by the huge space left for him to cover by the marauding runs of Marcelo. Rafael too did not cover himself in glory, his tournament ending ignominiously as he left the field following a childish squabble with defensive partner Juan.  Hopefully man mountain Dede will line up with Thiago Silva come 2014 but evidently there is work to be done on the defensive front.

Much credit must go to Mexico rather than merely focus on the shortcomings of Brazil.  Whereas the Canarinho at times looked more like a bunch of individuals, El Tri were the epitome of a collective unit.  The backline worked in unison, conceding just four goals in six games, while the midfield quickly pressed and tirelessly harried the opposition.  Impressively too, all bar Gio Dos Santos still ply their trade in the domestic league.

Anyone who has been following Mexico’s progress at youth level will not be overly surprised by the latest achievement.  Following U17 World Cup wins in 2005 and 2011, they won the prestigious Toulon tournament this May and they carried this form and togetherness into the Olympics.  The gangling Diego Reyes was a revelation at centre back, while deep lying midfielder Jorge ‘Chaton’ Enriquez built upon his Bronze ball winning performances at last year’s under-20 world cup. Despite a slow start Marco Fabian, top scorer at Toulon, burst into life into life in the semis and was unlucky not to score in the final.

If these youngsters can follow in the footsteps of Chicharito Hernandez and Andres Guardado and graduate to the senior set-up, it all points to a promising future for the national team.

Although primarily an under-23 tournament, crucial to Mexico’s success was the careful selection of the three overage players.  Goalkeeper Jose Corona made a string of important saves en route to the final and Carlos Salcido used his vast experience to form a great partnership with Enriquez in an unfamiliar role at the base of midfield.  Peralta, little known outside of Mexico and not a regular at senior international level, made a huge impact, carrying his great form from the Clausura to net four times, the final two proving to be decisive.

While the Mexican trio slotted in to compliment the overall balance of the team, the same cannot be said of Brazil’s overage players.  There had been much pre-tournament debate focused on the inclusion of Hulk, with the outspoken Romario particularly holding no punches: “we sould have taken a player who commands respect.”  Although he looked dangerous, he was used intermittently and it begs the question over why he was selected.

Furthermore, while Marcelo is undoubtedly a top left-back, his attacking tendencies left the inexperienced Juan exposed and also led to the re-deployment of Alex Sandro further forward, all to the detriment of the team’s shape.  Mexico pin-pointed these weaknesses to devastating effect in the final.

Clearly it’s over-simplistic to reduce the crux of Brazil’s failure to the issue of over-age players, but in my eyes it nevertheless represents an interesting comparison between the areas in which Mexico succeeded and Brazil did not.

Brazil may have fallen at the final hurdle but their Olympic journey should be taken in the wider context of preparing players for what is undoubtedly the main show in two years’ time.  As Tim Vickery has pointed out “considerable progress has been made in the quest to find something of greater long-term importance than an Olympic gold – a coherent, collective idea of play.” It would be a shame for Mano Menezes’ project to be uprooted and the players will have gain vital experience. Mexico meanwhile have continued their own promising progress and will be hoping that this historic Olympic triumph ushers in a successful chapter of their rich footballing history.