The Brazilian striker is on his way to becoming a household name and could be the man leading Brazil’s attack at next year’s World Cup.
Matheus Cunha proved during the Olympics that he’s worth keeping an eye on for Brazil’s senior squad. AFP/AYAKA NAITO/Getty Images
Brazil began losing the 1998 World Cup two years earlier at the Atlanta Olympics, as anyone who followed their long buildup could see.
After winning USA 94 and riding high on the confidence of a bright new generation, it was widely believed in Brazil that the team would cruise to Olympic gold in 1996 and then go to France. But, for all of its flashes of brilliance, the squad never quite convinced in Atlanta, and it was no surprise when they lost the semifinal to Nigeria. They seemed to be rudderless and without a leader, prompting a return for 1994 captain Dunga in the aftermath of the Olympic failure.
Brazil was deceiving itself. They had seen in the 1995 Copa America that Dunga’s legs were no longer up to a big tournament, but the Olympics had brought them to a psychological point where they couldn’t play without him. They battled their way to the final in France 98, frequently at the expense of their health, and then demonstrated that they couldn’t play with Dunga against the new prince Zinedine Zidane.
Since then, the Olympic Games have been removed from the FIFA schedule. Clubs are under no duty to release athletes. It gives the competition a haphazard air. No team is at its strongest in this under-23 (this year under-24) tournament with the choice of three overage players, but some are closer than others. It all relies on how well clubs have managed to secure the availability of their top players.
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The title is unquestionably devalued as a result of this. The eventual gold medalists will celebrate lavishly, as is their right, but for the rest of us, the most intriguing element of the tournament — just as it was for Brazil in 1996 — will be how it affects the senior national team.
Everton striker Richarlison has been Brazil’s star in the group stage, scoring five of the team’s seven goals, but his attacking partner Matheus Cunha is even more intriguing. Cunha is not yet a member of Brazil’s senior team; Richarlison is, but he should be.
The Copa America demonstrated that Brazil’s long-standing issue at center-forward has not been resolved. Cunha may be the answer since he brings something new to the table.
The senior team’s offense revolves on Neymar. The Copa shows that the Paris Saint-Germain star desperately needs a back-to-goal centre-forward to push the opposition defense back and create space in front of the defensive line for him. Cunha of Hertha Berlin is rangy, fast, two-footed, flexible, and, most importantly, adept with his back to goal. He was the leading scorer in the Olympic qualifying campaign at the start of last year, so it’s surprising he hasn’t been promoted to the senior team yet.
Cunha is proving his worth in Japan, despite squandering opportunities and missing a penalty in the opening game against Germany. But he made an impression with a beautiful header against Saudi Arabia in the last group encounter, and the knockout round offers him a chance to make his claim to a spot in the World Cup in Qatar at the end of next year.
And it all begins with Egypt in the quarterfinals on Saturday. It might have been Argentina, but the 2004 and 2008 gold medalists are out of the group stage after one victory, one tie, and one loss.
Argentina’s defeat was close (they were eliminated on goal difference), but not unexpected. With Cadiz goalkeeper Jeremias Ledesma as the only overage player, their team lacked the experience of Brazil’s. With the exception of two players who made short cameos in a friendly, no one had played a competitive game for the senior side, and neither of them was able to make much of an impact. Alexis MacAllister, a playmaker for Brighton & Hove Albion, was unable to get involved, while Adolfo Gaich, a centre-forward, cut a ponderous figure. Only two goals in three games speaks its own tale, particularly since both were bundled in following set pieces.
The squad lacked the ability to make an impact, yet it was exactly this that made the competition engaging.
Argentina was eliminated from the men’s Olympic competition in the group stage following a 2-2 tie with Spain in the final. Getty Images/Atsushi Tomura
Despite winning the Copa America, Argentina’s centre-back positions remain a source of concern. The Olympics provided an opportunity to have a closer look at two young defenders who have been on the periphery of the senior squad: Atletico Madrid’s Nehuen Perez, 21, and Lens’ Facundo Medina, 22.
They were put under a lot of strain in the first game against Australia, when one of their players was unjustly sent off shortly before halftime, and particularly in the final group game against a very strong Spain side. The latter ended in a 1-1 draw, with Argentina scoring a late equalizer, but it was a one-sided game, with Spain controlling the pace and generating the opportunities. They could have scored a lot more than the one goal that Dani Olmo set up and Mikel Merino slipped home.
Perez and Medina were put to the test, and they passed with flying colors. When the defensive line was broken, the stocky, left-footed Medina was definitely remarkable, displaying excellent speed of recovery.
In the current Olympic football competition, it is beneficial to forego a medal in exchange for a center-back.