This summer has already given soccer fans a supersized Euros, a super-continental Copa América, and a supercharged transfer season. With that football feast already ingested, and with the start of the club season and Olympic women’s soccer imminent, adding another tournament to the mix is like plopping a sixth potato dish on the Thanksgiving table after everyone has already loosened their belts.
But it’s not every summer that a transcendent athlete not named LeBron James has the opportunity to win fans a long-elusive title. Neymar’s quest to bring Brazil the country’s first Olympic soccer gold — as the tournament’s best player, on home soil, amid a backdrop of intense national soccer angst — should make men’s soccer a must-watch event over the next two weeks.
That’s not a description typically applied to the Olympic event. Whereas the women’s tournament includes the world’s best players, the men’s exists as a glorified youth competition, with teams allotted just three over-23 roster spots.
With most top international players having already competed for their countries in senior competitions over the summer — and with club teams not having to release their stars to national federations for the Olympics — players of a certain caliber simply don’t play in this tournament. In Europe’s five biggest leagues, 94 players tallied double-digit domestic goals last season; just Neymar (24 goals) is on an Olympic roster. He’s here only because Brazil and Barcelona struck a deal that allowed him to skip the Copa América Centenario in exchange for a release from club duties during the Olympics.
Neymar, then, is the tournament’s singular star, and Brazil its singular favorite. The plan could still go awry, as when the 2012 Uruguayan squad used two of its overage slots on stars Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani, but failed to reach the knockout stages, with neither of the two forwards scoring a goal. But Brazil is playing at home, and Neymar can do things like this against a top-four La Liga side:
He’ll probably be fine against the U-23 teams from Denmark, Iraq, and South Africa in the group games.
That Brazil is hosting while trying for its first Olympic soccer gold shouldn’t be reason alone for Neymar, at all of 24 years old, to serve as an elder on this team. Club achievements make up the majority of a player’s legacy, and play in the World Cup and continental competitions can matter on the margins, but the Olympics? When Lionel Messi kinda-maybe-sorta retired from international soccer without a major title, nobody mentioned the gold he won as a 21-year-old without a “but this doesn’t really count” qualifier. And beyond Argentina’s two titles, the list of recent winners is hardly filled with the world’s elite.
Except, while a gold medal won’t leave much of a mark on soccer history, it would matter a great deal for Neymar and Brazil right now. If soccer is truly religion in the country, then the nation’s faith might be eroding. From 1994–2007, Brazil reached three World Cup finals, winning two, and collected four Copa trophies. Since that title-laden run, they’ve fired Dunga more times than they’ve advanced past the quarterfinals of a major tournament.
Zoom in on the last couple years and the situation looks even messier. Brazil lost its last two games in the 2014 World Cup by a combined score of 10–1, left the 2016 Copa after group play, and sits in sixth place — sixth — a third of the way through 2018 World Cup qualifying.
Despite his nation’s struggles, Neymar’s been able to avoid much of the blame. Throughout his international career, he has excelled while wearing the famed yellow no. 10. He won the Golden Ball at the 2013 Confederations Cup and, in the World Cup the following summer, notched four goals in the group stage, scored the Round of 16 winner in penalties, and assisted on Brazil’s opening goal in the quarterfinals.
That Germany then battered Brazil like a piñata with Neymar out — he was sidelined when Colombian defender Juan Zúñiga did his best Bane impression in the quarters — only served to heighten his burgeoning legacy. This summer’s Copa had the same effect, when a Neymar-less roster netted seven against Haiti — which, good for Coutinho — but failed to score in its two other group games.
Neymar sat out the tougher, more prestigious summer tournament, but it sets the stage for this: a picture of the star in the middle of the Maracanã with a wide smile on his face and a gold medal around his neck that would belong in a Nike commercial.
Because — and forgive this apparent cynicism — this summer has also done wonders for Neymar’s #brand. Instead of muddying his cleats in Orlando, he spent his time juggling with Justin Bieber, releasing an inaugural pair of Jordans, and joining the cast of the new Vin Diesel movie. And now, instead of shading off Suárez in early season La Liga matches against the likes of Real Betis, he gets the chance to compete in the two-week center of the sporting universe.
When Barcelona opens its title defense at the Nou Camp on August 20, its lineup will be missing the third head of its goal-scoring dragon. Neymar might spend that afternoon winning Olympic gold instead.