Where’s Neymar? Olympic selections with clubs, not countries


TOKYO (AP) – Some of the unusual aspects of Olympic men’s football become clearer when you consider Neymar’s absence.

This selection decision did not depend on Brazil, but on Paris Saint-Germain, owned by Qatar, and its Argentine coach.

Neymar could be barred from playing more games for his country rather than gearing up for a new season with the team paying him millions of dollars a month.

In Neymar’s absence, Brazil instead relied on Richarlison for goals. Even if, like Neymar, Richarlison has already left with Brazil for two months. The two were part of the squad that lost to Argentina three weeks ago in the Copa America final.

Unlike Neymar, Everton were ready to allow Richarlison to delay entering the new Premier League season to help Brazil defend gold.

“It’s a dream to come here,” Richarlison said ahead of Tuesday’s semi-final against Mexico. “As a kid I always watched TV and always wanted to play in the Olympics, so I fought to be here. I am very happy and thanked Everton for releasing me. Without them I wouldn’t be here. They pay my salary.

For a Copa America or a World Cup, Everton would not have a say. But men’s Olympic football – unlike elite women’s competition with no age restrictions – is not on FIFA’s international calendar forcing clubs to release players for their country or risk sanctions.

However, Spain is a rarity – its clubs must release players for the Spanish Olympic team.

Men’s competition has evolved from an amateur event, starting 30 years before the FIFA World Cup started in 1930, to a heightened youth competition, given the team’s usual age limit of 23. years.

Three over-aged players are allowed, which is why 24-year-old Neymar was only available for the 2016 Olympics after agreeing with Barcelona to skip that year’s Copa America. It was Neymar’s penalty that clinched gold in the shootout victory over Germany at the crowded Maracana and created one of the iconic moments from the Rio Games that electrified Brazil in a way that few Olympic sports have succeeded in doing.

But Neymar must have watched from afar as his friend – on his own recommendation to Richarlison – wore his usual No.10 jersey.

“He knows I can bear the responsibility on my shoulders,” Richarlison said, recounting their regular phone calls.

With five goals in four games at the Olympics, Richarlison has already done one better than Neymar five years ago. He also prepared the winner of Matheus Cunha against Egypt in the quarter-finals on Saturday.

Being in the Brazil spotlight away from Neymar, even at the Olympics, could prove to be the perfect platform to upgrade Everton’s clubs to one also playing in the Champions League. It’s worth it, adding an extra tournament at the end of a season in his 12th month for Richarlison.

“I feel strong physically and mentally,” he said. “I’m young and I have more of my entire career ahead of me so I have to make the most of it.

“I am very happy to be here with my teammates who give as much as possible so that we can win a very important competition for Brazil where we have to keep our gold medal.”

It is the value of gold that remains to be debated as long as the Olympic teams are not as strong as possible. For the Egyptians, Richarlison’s presence on the pitch on Saturday showed how much they would have benefited from not being denied another striker who plays in Merseyside: Mohamed Salah of Liverpool.

“As long as we are not the decision-makers here and, as long as his club decides, I can’t say anything about it,” Egypt manager Shawky Gharib said through an interpreter. “I would like the Olympics to be on the international calendar.

There is no sign of this happening, although FIFA is in talks with nations, leagues and clubs over the international fixture list after 2024.

But football is secure as an Olympic sport. While most games are played in empty stadiums in Japan due to the pandemic, football generally accounts for the most tickets sold at the Olympics. Over 30,000 people attended every men’s game in 2016, with cumulative attendance exceeding one million.

For the players, it is the unique experience of getting out of the football bubble and mingling with the athletes’ village. Spain striker Dani Olmo was lucky enough to see 20-time Grand Slam winner Novak Djokovic.

“You live with stars,” said Olmo, “and that atmosphere is amazing to us.”

Olmo and five Spanish teammates prepare for a semi-final with host Japan on Tuesday after being part of the country’s run to the European Championship four months ago.

“Some people may ask why should I come (to the Olympics) and not rest a bit, but I say ‘No’,” said the Leipzig forward. “It’s a great opportunity for us.


More AP: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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