Calling the 2012 Brazilian men’s Olympic soccer team a gold-medal contender is something akin to calling the sky blue.
For goodness sake, it's Brazil. Five World Cups, 190 million soccer-mad residents and a list of top European club players that extends for days. Any sane Olympic soccer preview would concede that the Brazilians, once they finish picking a team, will feature one of the deepest, most talented rosters in London.
The challenge becomes putting that paper to pitch, a surprisingly difficult task considering that Brazil, for all its soccer accomplishments, has never won the Olympic gold medal.
Never. Not once. I know, it's crazy.
On March 14, manager Mano Menezes released a preliminary list of 52 players made eligible for the final Olympic squad. By June 8 that list will shrink to 35, and on July 6 Brazil will announce its final roster of 18 (see previous link for details).
Let's take an early stab at how the squad might look and how the Brazilians might fare as they chase that elusive Olympic gold.
Listed below are the 52 players eligible for the Olympic squad. Over-age players are in bold.
Notable absences include senior team stalwarts Kaka and Robinho. Manager Mano Menezes says he needs to see more from the recovering Kaka at the club level before deciding whether or not he's fit for the 2014 World Cup squad.
Alex Sandro (Porto)
Alexandre Pato (Milan)
Andre (Atletico Mineiro)
Bernard (Atletico Mineiro)
Bruno Uvini (Tottenham)
Casemiro (Saint Paul)
Daniel Alves (Barcelona)
David Luiz (Chelsea)
Diego Alves (Valencia)
Douglas Costa (Shaktar Donetsk)
Dudu (Dynamo Kiev)
Fernandinho (Shaktar Donetsk)
Gabriel Silva (Novara)
Paulo Henrique Ganso (Santos)
Julio Cesar (Internazionale)
Leandro Damiao (Internacional)
Lucas (Sao Paulo)
Lucas Mendes (Coritiba)
Marcelo (Real Madrid)
Philippe Coutinho (Espanyol)
Rafael (Manchester United)
Rafael Cabral (Santos)
Renan Ribeiro (Atletico Mineiro)
Thiago Silva (Milan)
Wellington Nem (Fluminense)
Willian Jose (Sao Paulo)
The Olympic men's soccer competition is a U-23 tournament with one exception—each team is allowed three players over 23.
A quick look now at the over-age players Mano Menezes has named to Brazil's 52-man preliminary roster for the 2012 Olympic games.
Adriano (Defender/midfielder, Barcelona, Spain)
The Barcelona reserve is versatile, but has made little impact on the international level since helping Brazil win the U-20 World Cup in 2003.
Daniel Alves (Defender, Barcelona, Spain)
According to CNN's Paul Gittings, Daniel Alves will be competing with Manchester United's Rafael for the right back position. Rafael, however, is under age, putting the onus on Daniel Alves to prove his worth.
David Luiz (Defender, Chelsea, England)
The center back plays club with London-based Chelsea and has been a lineup fixture ever since transferring in January 2011.
Dede (Defender, Vasco, Brazil)
His work for the Rio-based club Vasco has drawn rave reviews. According to The Daily Mail's John Edwards, Manchester United and Portugal's Benfica are hot on his trail. Were he born six months later, Dede would be eligible for a traditional roster spot.
Diego Alves (Goalkeeper, Valencia, Spain)
He was the backup keeper for Brazil at the Beijing Games. Bleacher Report columnist Mohamed Al-Hendy calls him the best penalty kick saver in the world.
Elias (Midfielder, Sporting, Portugal)
Elias' time with Corinthians in the Brazilian league coincided with Mano Menezes' tenure as manager. Might the prior relationship help his cause?
Fernandinho (Midfielder, Shakhtar Donetsk, Ukraine)
Shakhtar Donetsk has won four Ukrainkian Premier League titles since the speedy Fernandinho joined ranks in 2005.
Hernanes (Midfielder, Lazio, Italy)
Hulk (Attacker, Porto, Portugal)
The burly striker has scored 46 goals since joining Porto in 2008.
Jefferson (Goalkeeper, Botafogo, Brazil)
He's 29 and has been used sparingly by the national team.
Jonas (Attacker, Valencia, Spain)
His superb work with the Brazilian club Gremio prompted a jump to Spain in 2011. He's been a regular for Valencia over the past year.
Julio Cesar (Goalkeeper, Internazionale, Italy)
Julio Cesar has been Brazil's starter in goal for almost five years. But he's 32, and manager Mano Menezes could decide if it's time to test youngsters like Rafael Cabral.
Luisão (Defender, Benfica, Portugal)
The seasoned center back has been a reserve in two World Cups.
Marcelo (Defender, Real Madrid, Spain)
In 2011, Diego Maradona called Marcelo the Spanish league's third-best player after Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. So he's a lock for the roster, right? Not in talent-rich Brazil, where even 23-year-old superstars have to look over their shoulders. Were Marcelo eight months younger, he'd be age eligible.
Ronaldinho (Attacker, Flamengo, Brazil)
When Brazil announced its preliminary roster, Ronaldinho's inclusion stole headlines. He has Olympic experience—having played over age in 2008—and he carries the kind of celebrity that could light up this tournament. I expect his roster fate to be the number one story out of Brazil camp leading up to London.
Thiago Silva (Defender, Milan, Italy)
Projected Starters: Neymar, Alexandre Pato
Projected Reserve: Hulk
— Dramatic as it would be to see Ronaldinho's name among the final 18, I can't see him breaking through. Brazil has enough attacking savvy as is without an encore performance from a fading star.
— The headline name in this group is Neymar, a 20-year-old wunderkind from Sao Paulo who draws comparisons to Lionel Messi. In fact, the legendary Pele says Neymar is already better than Messi.
— Let's leave the Messi debate for another day and agree that Neymar is good, very good. He has a chance to be the star of this tournament, all while accomplishing something no other player in the great lineage of Brazilian football has ever done—win gold.
By the Numbers:
96 — Goals scored by Neymar in 175 games with club team Santos.
Projected Starters: Sandro, Philippe Coutinho, Ganso, Fernando
Projected Reserves: Oscar, Dudu, Lucas
— The composition of the midfield is tricky, and it depends on the tactics Mano Menezes chooses to employ. In this iteration I'm slating Brazil for something of a 4-2-2-2 alignment, with two defending mids and two attacking mids. Such a strategy puts the uber-talented Lucas on the bench in favor of the less heralded, but more versatile, Fernando.
— That leaves the Brazilian bench loaded with weapons. Lucas has senior national team experience and Oscar was the hero of Brazil's U-20 World Cup victory, registering a hat trick in the final against colonial rival Portugal.
By the Numbers:
Projected Starters: Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Rafael, Gabriel Silva
Projected Reserves: Alex Sandro, Bruno Uvini
— Mano Menezes wants experience in the back, which is why he will commit two of his over-age spots to center backs (Thiago Silva and David Luiz). As an Olympic veteran and standout club performer, Thiago Silva is the clear leader of this bunch. It's his job to direct and manage the young talent around him.
— Manchester United's Rafael is a safe choice on the right side, but his counterpart on the left is up for debate. Alex Sandro is an exciting player and could get significant minutes in this tournament. For now I've slotted him behind Gabriel Silva, who got the lion's share of the run during Brazil's victorious march through the U-20 World Cup last year.
— The last spot goes to Bruno Uvini, captain of that U-20 squad and a possible starter if Menezes wants to play with three center backs.
By the Numbers:
690 — Minutes played by Bruno Uvini during the 2011 U-20 World Cup. The center back didn't miss a second of Brazil's seven-game slate.
Projected Starter: Rafael Cabral
Projected Reserve: Neto
— Mano Menezes' decision to put three over-age keepers in the preliminary 52 (Diego Alves, Jeferson and Julio Cesar) might indicate that he wants experience in goal. But ultimately I think he'll cast his lot with defense, saving those precious spots for field players.
— Rafael Cabral is a rising star for the Sao Paulo-based club Santos, and the heir apparent to current senior team keeper Julio Cesar. If he does get the start, he's a potential breakout star at this tournament.
— Neto's experience playing for Atletico Paranaense gives Menezes a veteran option should Rafael Cabral show nerves.
By the Numbers:
64 — Caps earned by Julio Cesar, fifth all-time among Brazilian goalies.
After losing to Holland in the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup, the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) dropped manager Dunga and replaced him with Mano Menezes.
Menezes lacks Dunga's superstar playing resume, but he makes up for it with coaching bona fides.
After successful stints managing Brazilian clubs Gremio and Corinthians, CBF hopes his intimate knowledge of the talent-rich native league and extended history coaching young players leads to smart selections for the national side.
His tactics, however, don't differ much from Dunga. Goal.com's Lucas Lopez da Cruz writes:
Rather like his predecessor, Dunga, Menezes' style of coaching is one of a defensive nature. His system emphasizes possession of the ball and strong marking in a tightly run midfield, always utilizing two defensive-midfielders.
A fan of counter-attacking football, Menezes has often used three center-backs with wingers either side of them. He also generally plays with two strikers: one in a roaming, wide-style role, and one central target-man.
Dunga's emphasis on defense and counter-attacking drew the ire of many Brazilians in the lead up to World Cup 2010. His philosophy ran counter to the open, attacking style many fans associate with Brazil
With Brazil set to host the World Cup in 2014, Menezes is sure to face criticism for his thoroughly un-Brazilian tactics. One wonders how the new manager will respond.
Neymar turns the Olympic tournament into his personal showcase, spearheading a Brazil attack that overwhelms the international field. On defense, the veteran leadership of Thiago Silva transforms a talented yet unproven back line into an elite one.
In the end, the Brazilians don’t just win their first Olympic gold medal in men’s soccer—they coast to it.
Brazil skates through the group stage on talent—just like 2008 when it outscored opponents 9-0—before buckling at the first sign of resistance in the knockout round. Despite brilliant moments from its young attacking stars, Brazil settles for a fifth-place finish.
The fallout throws Brazil’s World Cup preparedness into question and raises concerns about manager Mano Menezes’ job security. According to the Associated Press, Brazilian football federation president Jose Maria Marin has already insinuated that Menezes could lose his job if Brazil doesn't take gold.
And that's just what the Brazilians want to avoid before World Cup on home soil. On the eve of perhaps the most important sporting event in the nation's history, Brazil can't afford discord.
Brazil will finish...
If Olympic gold wasn't motivation enough, Brazilian footballers know that their individual performances in this tournament will impact their chances to earn a coveted spot on the 2014 World Cup team.
That's the carrot Mano Menezes and his charges need to finally top the podium. With 18 of the world's best young players at its disposal, Brazil should trounce the London field.
Of course we say that every Olympiad. But this time the Brazilians are on a mission.
Nicknames: A Selecao (The Selection), Canarinho (Little Canary), Verde-Amarela (Green and Yellow), Samba Boys, Pentacampeoes (Five Time Champion)
Manager: Mano Menezes
Best Olympic Finish: Silver (1984, 1988)
How they Qualified for the Olympics: Won 2011 South American Youth Championship
Got Highlights? Of course. Here we see star striker Neymar shredding a bunch of overmatched Paraguayan teenagers at the South American U-20 Championships. Conclusion: Neymar is good.
Fun-ish Soccer-Related Fact: According to Wikipedia, Estadio de Maracana in Rio de Janeiro is the largest stadium in South America. The Maracana's 82,238-seat capacity is just a tick lower than that of Florida State's Doak Campbell Stadium.