Maybe you, like me, put on Brazil’s first two Olympic soccer matches in the background, halfway monitoring the excitement in the announcers’ voices so as to switch browser windows in time to see one of the presumed dozen or so goals this super-talented team would put past their group stage opponents. If so, you were greatly disappointed when the likes of South Africa and Iraq prevented a team with future stars Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Barbosa and even goddamn Neymar from scoring in their first two matches.
Put off by the boredom of those matches, and not invested enough in yet another Brazilian tournament debacle to watch their subsequent endeavors in this mostly meaningless competition, maybe you, like me, have ignored the Seleção since those poor displays early on. This was a mistake, because Brazil, now into Saturday’s gold medal game against Germany, have started to look really, really good.
Yesterday, Brazil capped off their third consecutive impressive performance by annihilating Honduras by a score of 6-0. It only took them an Olympic-record 15 seconds to open the scoring. Neymar chased down a block-footed Honduran defender who needed about five touches on the ball before feeling comfortable enough to pass it, deflected the ensuing pass at the top of the Honduras keeper’s penalty area, and managed to bang both his body and the ball off the onrushing goalie in a way that saw the ball trickle over the goal line.
After that graceless though well-earned first goal, Brazil proceeded to deftly demolish Honduras in the more aesthetically pleasing fashion they’ve demonstrated during their hot streak. Brazil came into the tournament playing a fairly safe 4-3-3. This helped protect them defensively, but the midfield’s inability to associate with the forwards consistently and create chances for their fearsome front three blunted their attacking edge.
After the team couldn’t score in the first two games, the manager decided to switch to almost a 4-2-4, dropping a central midfielder, inserting striker Luan into the formation, moving Jesus from the middle to the left wing, and starting Neymar centrally. With Luan and Neymar, two players as good at scoring goals as setting them up for their teammates, in the center of the pitch, Brazil now had two creative hubs, either of which could drop deep and orchestrate attacks and allow the other to push forward and make all sorts of dangerous runs.
Playing with essentially four versatile strikers who all are perfectly comfortable all over the pitch—running in behind the defense, or looking for space out on the wings, or making something happen with their ball at their feet in the middle of the pitch—has unlocked the Brazilian attack by making them almost impossible to predict and even harder to stop. Neymar has thrived under the additional responsibilities, becoming the team’s chief playmaker. Both Gabriels and Luan have also looked good, and the rest of the team has been solid as well. Brazil scored four goals against Denmark in the final match of the group stage, put two past a tough Colombia team in the quarterfinals, and six past Honduras to give themselves a shot for the gold.
The only real question heading into this tournament was whether Brazil would be able exercise some of the demons that have haunted them since the debacle of the 2014 World Cup. The passionate, demanding, often hyper-critical Brazilian fan base has a strange love-hate relationship with the national team. They want to cheer a winner that plays something like the old jogo bonito, but will boo any team they feel isn’t meeting those lofty standards. There’s been more than enough to boo these past few years of repeatedly disappointing play, poor management of the team and Brazilian soccer generally, and rampant corruption.
Maybe this Olympic team can finally give fans something to rejoice over, even a meager thing like a gold medal that doesn’t really matter to any of their competitors. To do so, though, they’ll have to get it done in the Maracanã, the site of their latest World Cup blunder, and once again against Germany, who themselves have also looked terrifying in attack for most of the tournament. It should be fun to watch.