The build up to international tournaments. All the hype, the expectation, the predictions, everybody desperate for the players to take to the field. Then comes the opening game, inevitably a huge let down, and all of that nervous energy disappears. It is a pattern any fan of football will be familiar with.
In Brazil the build up to this particular tournament has been intense even by the standards of the país do futebol. Brazil have never won a football gold medal at the Olympics and all 200 million inhabitants are fully expectant that this as yet untasted glory, the only thing missing from the Brazilian trophy cabinet, will arrive this month in Rio de Janeiro. As everyone in the media here keeps repeating, second is less than nothing.
The front three of Gabriel Barbosa, Gabriel Jesus and Neymar have been much talked about in bars from Florianopolis to Fortaleza and endlessly eulogised in the press, but today they failed to break through a South African defence as well drilled as any of the teams we saw closing down the space at Euro 2016.
South Africa, when out of possession, lined up in a 4-4-2 so organised it appeared as if it had been cast in iron. Even the supposed strikers retreated behind the line of Thiago Maia, the deepest of the three Brazilian midfielders.
The pitch was also a hindering factor for the samba boys. At times the ball looked as it was rolling through an Olympic swimming pool of treacle as it held up on the bone dry turf of the Mané Garrincha stadium in the capital Brasília. On several occasions Neymar appeared as if he got his feet tangled owing the dusty earth slipping around under his feet.
But this is not to say South Africa came here just to defend. When they recovered the ball they broke at speed and with menace that, at least in the first half, outdid their hosts. As part of the exhausting build up the South Africa coach Owen Da Gama, a man appropriately named for a conquest in Brazil, had said that the South Africans learned to play football watching videos of the Brazilian greats of the 60s and 70s. It looked like they had been watching closely.
South Africa’s number 10 Keagan Dolly stood out. Every time he received the ball he drove at pace towards the heart of the Brazilian defence and was at the centre of South Africa’s most threatening first half moments.
After just two minutes Dolly played a ball which cut through the Brazilian defence and arrived at the feet of Lille striker Lebothang Mothiba running through on Weverton’s goal, the advancing ‘keeper was forced into a good save with his feet. The crowd received its first warning that this wouldn’t be as easy as many had predicted.
It took until the 26th minute for the next piece of notable action to come, Bafana Bafana threatening again. A shot from Motupa passed three feet wide of the upright after a good passing move around the edge of the Brazilian area.
After this the game opened up a little and there were chances for both sides. South Africa stopper Khune was forced into action saving a Neymar shot from the edge of the area before having to come and punch a long ball over the top that Gabriel Barbosa was looking to run onto. Attacking midfielder Felipe Anderson saw a long-range volley graze the post and Khune again saved well from a Neymar drive. For Da Gama’s side Dolly saw a speculative but powerful effort also go narrowly wide.
In the second half things started much as they had finished in the first, with Brazil trying to weave their way through the grid of green shirts whilst South Africa again threatened on the counter. Only some excellent defending stopped Barbosa converting a deliciously curling Douglas Santos cross before South Africa went up the other end and had a dangerous crossing opportunity themselves.
Eight minutes into the second period South Africa had another clear chance, Dolly again involved. The man of the match crossed early from the left and his ball was met by Mothiba in the middle, but he could only head straight in to the grateful arms of Weverton from 12 yards.
On the hour South Africa midfielder Mvala was sent off, receiving a second yellow just moments after his first for an ugly and apparently malicious challenge on right-back Zeca.This changed the flow of the game and with ten men it was merely a case of Bafana Bafana hanging on for the draw.
Several chances followed for Brazil and Khune was soon called into action again, saving comfortably from a Zeca effort from 22 yards. Gabreil Jesus, the new Manchester City man who in general had a quiet night, managed to hit the upright with the goal gaping in the 68th minute. Though he was offside the linesman failed to flag and the goal would have stood.
Three minutes later Neymar shot once again from the edge of the box, the ball dipping violently but only onto the roof of the net, many inside the stadium briefly thought he had scored when they saw the white nylon ripple. Despite some good shots and individual work Neymar failed to link well with his team mates, playing 27 erroneous passes during the game.
The Seleção kept up the pressure until the end but it was to no avail; despite bringing on Luan for Felipe Anderson, thus changing to 4-2-4, they still did not have enough to force a goal. The South Africans defended with courage and determination and an excellent performance from their goalkeeper was enough to see them escape with a 0-0 draw, even after playing half an hour with a one man disadvantage.
It was a fully deserved point and confronting Bafana Bafana will now be an unpleasant prospect for Denmark and Iraq, the other two teams in the group. Brazil will be extremely disappointed with the result but will surely have better days in this tournament.
On a better surface and with opponents less well organised, which some inevitably will be, they will still be a dangerous prospect. The natural reaction of the Brazilian media will be to see this as a crisis; it is far from that but the players need to react well against Iraq to convince everyone that they really do have what it takes to get that gold.