Brazil favoured as men's football kicks off
LONDON, England (AFP) — Brazil kick off their latest attempt to win their Holy Grail of Olympic footballing gold today as their star-studded side take on Egypt in Cardiff.
The most successful nation in football history, Brazil have won an unrivalled five World Cups and no fewer than eight South American continental championships since 1916.
But despite repeated attempts at Olympic glory, the gold medal has remained stubbornly elusive for a nation which is often regarded as the spiritual guardians of the Beautiful Game.
Most gallingly, the Brazilians have had to endure the sight of bitter South American rivals Argentina winning gold at the last two Summer Olympics, triumphing in Beijing four years ago after beating Brazil in the last four.
However, Brazil's chances of finally landing the Olympic crown have been boosted by Argentina's failure to qualify for London, an absence which removes a major barrier from their path to the August 11 final at Wembley.
A squad bristling with star names including the highly sought-after Neymar, Oscar and Lucas, and bolstered by established overage players Thiago Silva, Hulk and Marcelo, looks like the team to beat on paper.
Although the squad suffered a setback on Tuesday when goalkeeper Rafael Cabral was ruled out with an elbow injury, it will be a major surprise if Brazil fail to emerge from a straightforward-looking first-round group which also includes Belarus and New Zealand.
Brazil coach Mano Menezes has attempted to play down the expectations of his side while acknowledging what a gold medal would mean for the country.
"It's huge for Brazilian fans, it's a dream to get this gold medal," Menezes said. "It's the only title we're missing."
"We feel we're capable of getting this gold medal, but we don't see ourselves as favourites."
Brazil certainly looked like potential gold medallists, however, with their stylish 2-0 dismissal of Great Britain's inexperienced side last Friday.
Britain's men, making their first appearance at an Olympic football tournament for 52 years, open their Group A campaign against Senegal at Manchester United's Old Trafford home today.
While the response to Britain's team has been lukewarm amongst sections of the host nation's footballing press, the players involved have voiced enthusiasm for Olympic competition.
Goalkeeper Jack Butland said the British team had united behind veteran captain Ryan Giggs, the Wales and Manchester United star who is playing in his first international tournament.
"He is a presence even before he opens his mouth. He is a player you respect, he's been in the Premier League his whole career and he's been there and done it, won Champions Leagues and Premier Leagues," Butland said.
"It's massive for us to be able to draw on that experience and he's always there offering his opinion. We are fortunate to have him around."
The biggest threat to Brazil's chances could come from Spain, who face Japan, Honduras and Morocco in Group D.
Chelsea midfielder Juan Mata is hoping to complete a remarkable clean sweep of silverware having been a member of Spain's Euro 2012-winning squad after earlier lifting the Champions League in May with his club.
"It would be amazing to win the Olympic tournament," Mata said.
"Winning a gold medal at the Olympics would complete an amazing summer for me, but also for Spanish football."