The men’s Olympic final between Brazil and Spain will be a battle of football philosophies
There is something quite random about the men’s Olympic football tournament.
Since the clubs are not obliged to fire their players, it is hardly a test of who is the best at youth level – men’s football at the Games is usually a competition under 23 with three over-the-year players, this time under 24 because of the lateness of the Year. Instead, it depends so much on whether or not the teams can draw on the services of their best qualified players.
There will certainly be food for thought as to whether the competition is worth it, but the final on Saturday is definitely worth it. Not only is it a clash between two attractive teams, Brazil versus Spain has also become a battle of ideas, a sharp contemporary rivalry with – certainly on the Brazilian side – a lot of needles in it.
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Almost a decade ago, in late 2011, Pep Guardiolas met Santos in the Club World Cup final. To the amazement of many Brazilians, Barcelona drove to a 4-0 victory with breathtaking ease. In the press conference after the game, Guardiola was stuck in the stiletto. His team handles the ball, he said, just as his grandfather told him about Brazil.
No wonder this sparked a response. At the time, Spain were reigning world and European champions with their patient passing game, only a few months away from successfully defending their title. But it wasn’t just their triumphs that strengthened the Brazilian back. It was the boast with which this was achieved. The Brazilians are understandably and rightly proud of being the only five-time world champion. But it was also proud to be seen as the spiritual guardian of what is known abroad as “the beautiful game” and in Brazil as “the art of football”.
But with many Brazilian coaches now fixated on the counterattack, the Spaniards came with the claim to usurp them – to win and then to scream about their ways.
True, a lot of Brazilians were a little bored with the Spanish possession game. Where Barcelona had Lionel Messi taking care of the individual imagination and the tangled, destructive dribbles, Spain’s passport could sometimes be stale in his absence. But in other places it could be dazzling, a constant and dynamic exercise in geometry, new triangles keep forming as two players exchanged passes and a third got into position to receive him.
But some Brazilians were affected not to see beauty in it. During the last European Championship, there were experts on Brazilian television who could not hide their desire to see the Spaniards defeated, punished for the supposed arrogance of their beliefs in a passing game.
Two Spanish coaches recently worked in the Brazilian national game, both advocating a possession-based style of play. Former Guardiola assistant Domenec Torrent was responsible for the Rio giant Flamengo, while Internacional moved further south with Miguel Angel Ramirez, fresh from an outstanding time at Independiente del Valle in Ecuador.
Brazil sees itself as the spiritual guardian of the “beautiful game”, but in recent decades Spain has usurped the Selecao. Buda Mendes / Getty Images
Both did not last long. Neither of them was given much time to build. Both sensed the hostility of an environment where many would doom them to failure and were eager to conclude that the Spanish possession game wasn’t all it was.
It is striking how few big games there have been between the two national teams recently. There was of course the 2013 Confederations Cup final. This is the tournament where Spain’s crown began to slide. They were irresistible for 45 minutes in a group match against Uruguay and never again as good. Brazil’s 3-0 win at the Maracana marked the end of the era of Spanish domination – but not the beginning of a new Brazilian era. At the two subsequent World Cups, Brazil’s campaign ended, as in the previous two, as soon as they met a Western European team in the knockout rounds. And that’s what adds extra spice to the Olympic final on Saturday.
Of course, a gold medal is at stake. But the game is also a reference to Qatar 2022. It presents a promising Brazilian side with a challenge that is not entirely unrelated to the one the senior squad will face at the end of next year.
While the other European teams – like the German team that Brazil met in the opening game – were weak, Spain are strong. Much of this has to do with the calendar. The Spanish season starts relatively late, which means the clubs were more willing to fire players and Spain have brought a squad with some of the young Lions out of the Euro, where they were clearly the better side than eventual champions Italy in the semi-finals .
Unlike Mexico, which were so disappointingly reticent against Brazil on Tuesday, Spain will come out to play, have the ball, work their triangles and ask questions of the Brazilian defense. Do you need too many chances to score? Will they get a lot of chances against a Brazilian defense that conceded only three goals in five games? And on the other end, can they hold off Brazil’s attack in open space?
The doubts are especially great when center forward Matheus Cunha is fit again, because his versatility and his back-to-go game open up attack opportunities that were not available in the goalless draw against the Mexicans. Richarlison is the top scorer, but Cunha is the only one to score in the knockout games. All along the line of scrimmage, Brazil could enjoy the rare opportunity to counterattack an opponent whose game plan was not designed with caution.
The prospect of a better final than the Olympic tournament deserves. And of a game whose waves will be felt in Qatar in 2022.