Hosting a major competition is no guarantee of taking home the big prize, as Brazil found out so painfully in 2014. But this time round, the young Selecao team is growing in confidence with every match and is within touching distance of making a medal a certainty—although the colour still needs to be decided.
The Olympic Games hosts are now just one match away from the final. Honduras stand in the way of the side led by Neymar, with the semi-final clash beginning just after midday local time in the heat of the Maracana.
Brazil cannot underestimate the Central Americans. Honduras are not a particularly pretty side to watch at these Olympics, but they are rapid, physical and tough to break down. They proved as much on Saturday by shutting out South Korea in a 1-0 victory that they ground out with a mixture of extreme passion and borderline violence.
The eventual winners committed no less than 23 fouls compared to just seven from South Korea. The Asians also dominated possession and peppered Luis Lopez with shots in the Honduras net, but as Argentina found out in the previous clash, they are a tough team to break down.
On one of the few occasions they had, a lethal counter-attack left the favourites exposed, and the excellent Alberth Elis converted to make history for Honduras.
After the tense, open brawl that was Brazil's quarter-final against Colombia, a similar type of test awaits in the last four. Los Cafeteros also hit hard, with play that bordered on the criminal at times. But the hosts outfoxed them, with Neymar and Luan hitting the net in a 2-0 victory.
Should the Selecao prevail over Honduras in the semis, we will be in store for a blockbuster gold-medal clash. Either Nigeria, full of goals and attacking verve at this Olympics and always a danger at junior level, or improving Germany will sit in the other half of the final, and neither team poses an easy prospect for the hosts. But having made such a poor start to the Games, Brazil have managed to steady the ship in time and will now fear no-one as they bid for the gold.
The last game against Colombia also had the added benefit of seeing Neymar return to his best form, squeezing home a free-kick to open the scoring after failing to make much of an impact in the group stage. The captain is desperate to shine for his nation, even if coach Rogerio Micale tries to take the focus off the Barcelona star and concentrate on his team as a whole.
“We always want to find someone to blame,” Micale told reporters prior to the Colombia game in response to mounting criticisms of Neymar from some sectors, per Raisa Simplico and Rupert Fryer of Goal. "That’s wrong. It took Germany 12 years to get to the top and we want to make it there in six months. For our game to move forward and improve, the discussion should have more depth."
The coach also knows what it means to come under the gaze of Brazil's demanding media and fans. After two goalless draws, many were ready to write the new man Micale off, calling his Olympic strategy a failure and even pushing for his sacking. But consecutive wins have changed the atmosphere around the team, and they have put those early doubts to one side as they have found their rhythm.
Football is as much a psychological test at the top level as it is physical. Brazil entered this tournament almost crushed under the weight of expectation; fans booed them when things went wrong, and the Selecao were constantly trying to reaffirm their commitment to the gold—the one title the nation has not lifted in football.
But almost paradoxically, that awful start appears to have been a blessing in disguise. Having touched rock bottom early on, Neymar and his team-mates decided that the only way was up, and what has followed in the last two games has been rather special.
More than any other opponent, Brazil have had to beat their own demons to make it so far at Rio 2016. The battle is still not over, but the hosts have a glorious chance to guarantee at least a medal should they overcome Honduras in the spiritual home of the nation's football.
With a clean bill of health and no suspensions, they have everything in their favour to book another Maracana date and duel once more for the gold.