If you read the Brazilian press you might be led into thinking that Brazil already had two Olympic gold medals in the bag. The expectation surrounding the men’s and women’s football teams is excruciating, nothing less than first place will do. Even Marta, Brazil’s captain and the greatest female footballer of all time, has admitted as much.
There is a lot of talk of the women repeating the success of the 2007 Pan-American Games that also took place in Rio, where they romped home to gold with attackers Cristiane and Marta in ruthless form.
There is no doubt that this team have a good chance of repeating the feat at this month’s Olympics but there are a lot of teams here capable of taking home the gold. The USA have a strong squad, with a mixture of emerging talent and players who won last year’s World Cup in Canada, and the French team is certainly another to keep an eye on.
Brazil, though, could not have got off to a much better start. They controlled the game against China from the first minute to the last, the 15 corners they amassed a sign of how much time was spent in China’s final third. The score line could have been much more comprehensive had the Seleção made the most of their possession and the promising situations they created.
Brazil lined up in a notional 4-4-2 that was more of a 4-2-4 owing to the selection of attackers Marta and Andressa Alves in the wide positions, needless to say they didn’t have a great deal of tracking back to do.
The home side’s first clear chance came after 13 minutes, a Tamires cross met by Cristiane who dragged her shot wide. The front-woman again popped up in the area two minutes later after a driving run from Fabiana, she turned beautifully but could only direct a weak, low shot into the arms of China’s giant goalkeeper Zhao Lina.
Four minutes later another chance arrived for the Seleção, Fabiana launched a long ball forward which Cristiane nodded into the path of her strike partner Beatriz whose shot was diverted wide by the sliding Chinese defender.
Just before the half hour mark Beatriz again had a wonderful opportunity. She ran through onto a long pass and beat her defender with pace and skill but could only poke the ball into the covering defender with the point of her toe.
Brazil were moving the ball quickly from back to front, utilizing the pace of their front four to get in behind the Chinese defence at every opportunity.
The first goal nearly came after 33 minutes from one of the slew of corners seen in the match. Cristiane was the first to react to a ball bouncing in the box only to see her shot cleared of the line. The ball went back out to Marta who lifted it into the area, it bounced down to Formiga, the veteran midfielder taking part in her sixth Olympics, who curled a shot just the wrong side of the upright.
By this time Marta had started to come into the game, leaving her position on the right and roaming into the centre, where she is at her most dangerous and the pressure finally paid off ten minutes from half time. The Chinese defence failed to clear another cross from the Brazilian captain and the ball fell to Mônica whose header trickled through a sea of red shirts and into the corner of the net.
Just before the referee blew her whistle for the break the Women in yellow suffered their only truly worrying moment of the match. A long aimless ball from the Chinese midfield bounced through towards Brazil ‘keeper Bárbara, and as she ran out to claim it a miscommunication with Fabiana resulted in the right back trying to head it back to her number 1 who had already come too far to collect the attempted pass. The ball ran agonisingly wide of the post as Brazilian hearts temporarily arrived in their respective mouths.
The yellow and green onslaught continued after the break and the suffocating pressure increased yet further after the introduction of young central midfielder Andressinha. Her delightful distribution took Brazil from playing long balls over the top to a more refined game, working the ball intelligently through midfield, and one would expect her to keep her place for upcoming games.
Seconds after coming on she played a perfectly weighted ball from just inside the Chinese half to Marta on the right, Marta ran at her defender, rolled her foot over the ball and prodded a cross with her laces towards Andressa Alves. Brazil’s number 9 obligingly smashed the ball into the back of the net for Brazil’s second, a goal which put the game to bed before an hour had elapsed.
Brazil spent the rest of the game stroking the ball gracefully around the Olympic Stadium pitch, drawing cries of olé from the carioca crowd. More reward came two minutes from time as Andressinha delivered a free kick for Cristiane to rise high above everyone else and nod the ball into the net left vacant by the flailing Zhao.
The goal made the final score slightly more reflective of the flow of the game but do not doubt for a second that China were lucky to escape without a truly embarrassing defeat in their opening game of the competition.
Brazil will come up against much tougher opponents in the weeks to come and to beat the stronger sides they will need to add some more final third combinations to the individual skill that was on show tonight. But, as they say, you can only beat what is in front of you. This evening the Brazilian women did so with aplomb.