Back in 1924 at the Olympic Games in Paris, the football final was a game of inverted pyramids. Both Uruguay and Switzerland played in a 2-3-5 formation. Uruguay had shaken the European teams on the way to the final and steamrollered their way to the gold medal, defeating Switzerland 3-0. Four years later, they repeated the feat in Amsterdam, in the derby of the Rio Plata, edging neighbours Argentina in a replay.

The Dutch Football Association had received 250,000 ticket requests from across the continent, with fans curious to see the sophisticated South Americans. The European footballing establishment was both embarrassed and flustered, yet again, because, frankly, how could any team play with such elegance and beauty?

English professionals were banned from participation in the Olympic Games because of the football tournament’s amateur status. But Uruguay’s supremacy was not to be tolerated in Europe, and so in 1930, the first Word Cup was organised to truly identify the best team in the world.

In it for the money

There and then, football should have been scrapped, with a big black marker, from the Olympic programme, irrelevant in its existence and unfit for competition alongside athletics, swimming, fencing gymnastics and other sports closely associated to the Olympic cosmos. But, even today, football remains a part of the Olympic Games, mainly because of economic imperatives.

At the last Olympic Games in London in 2012, 1.5 million tickets were sold for the football event out of 1.7 million available tickets and an overall total of 6.6 million tickets. Yet, Olympic football is often bedraggled by the Under-23 rule and considered a farce on an overcrowded football calendar. It serves as an Olympic parenthesis – the International Olympic Committee needs its revenue – but, at the same time, it is detached from the Olympic universe, an unnatural symbiosis between the global game and the world’s largest sports event.

“Football was never big at the Olympic Games and, until 1980, supposedly amateur (At Los Angeles in 1984, professional players were allowed to participate),” said Alexandre Gontijo, a Brazilian football expert. “The Eastern European teams dominated the circuit. Brazil reached the final in Seoul 1988 with Romario and from that moment on, the Olympic Games gained importance for the Seleção.”

The one that got away

Brazil failed to qualify in 1992 when Fifa and the IOC introduced the “law of 23”, which stipulates that football squads at the Olympics must be majorly composed of players under the age of 23. This was done to avoid a mini World Cup overshadowing the real event. Four years later, Brazil boasted Dida, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo and Juninho in their squad and took Rivaldo, Aldair and Bebeto as wild cards. They were a marvellously talented team, but were outplayed in the semi-finals by the equally gifted Nigerians. In extra-time, Nwanko Kanu scored the golden goal in a thrilling 4-3 game.

“Rivaldo became the scapegoat in 1996 against Nigeria,” recalled Gontijo. “Brazil were leading 3-1, but then Rivaldo lost possession in midfield. Rivaldo was absolutely castigated. It was presumably the worst game of his career.”

Ronaldinho, Lucio, Thiago Silva, Marcelo and Ramires have all featured recently in the Brazil shirt at the Olympic Games, but, in one of the great anomalies in football, a coveted gold medal remains elusive for Brazil. At London 2012, Brazil coach Mano Menezes was honing a next generation, including Paulo Henrique Ganso, Neymar, Oscar and Pato, but they fluffed the final against Mexico, 2-0.

“Two reasons [for Brazil’s final defeat] were inextricably linked: Menezes and Juan Jesus,” explained Rupert Fryer, the editor of Brasil Global Tour. “Brazil came into the tournament in transition, with a new breed of players tasked to lead the Seleção away from the reactive and reactionary approach of Carlos Dunga’s World Cup 2010 failures and develop a more contemporary and expansive style of play.

“However, defensive frailties were on show against Honduras and Egypt in particular, and Menezes realised the issue stemmed from the left side of his team: Neymar did not track back and Marcelo kept bombing forward, leaving the weakness of Juan Jesus brutally exposed,” continued Fryer. “Menezes choked in the final, desperate to plug the gap, he introduced Alex Sandro as an extra presence on the left, leaving the team totally lop-sided. This problem was exposed instantly with the early Mexican goal.”

The Brazilian way

At the time, Brazil were already struggling for a footballing identity – in the past based on physical development, not the burlesque levity and zaniness of the World Cup triumphs in 1958, 1962 and 1970. Technocrats were flag bearers for this ideology, resulting in a production conveyor-belt of defensive and bulky midfielders, aggressors rather than artists, players like Mauro Silva rather than Zico.

“Brazil once more have to play the beautiful game,” Menezes told “The last few years have led us on a way where those qualities and characteristics of Brazilian football have been abandoned. At this moment, Spain and Germany play the game like Brazil always used to. It is time to rediscover our identity and restore it.”

Andre Kfouri, a leading Brazilian football writer, succinctly pointed out that Euro 2012 was “the triumph of the intelligent midfielder”. The likes of Andrea Pirlo, Xavi and Iniesta, he wrote, “with neurones, retinas and feet of silk, recaptured the midfield battleground. Physically frail but superbly technically gifted ... they played a football of undeniable virtues, something which the Brazil team is still looking for, and which Brazilian football has forgotten.”

At the last World Cup, Brazil’s unforgiving 7-1 semi-final defeat against Germany on home soil should have sprung a Copernican Revolution, an admission of Brazilian football’s fallibilities – an outdated ideology based on a non-existent passing game, but Dunga’s post-World Cup appointment was proof of a football culture in denial.

“Dunga’s appointment was quite frankly mind-boggling,” said Fryer. “The return of Dunga was a staggering display of hubris. He was out of his depth throughout his second spell at international level. Brazil have been falling behind for years. The wretched [club] performances in the Copa Libertadores are another example. Brazil stopped looking out at the rest of the world a long time ago, committed wholeheartedly to the physical, anti-futebol they have largely been playing for 30 years. Those at CBF [the Brazilian Football Federation] reflect all of the above. The decision to ignore the emphatic evidence of that 7-1 and revert to type by bringing back Dunga is a perfect illustration of the insular, parochial thinking that has held Brazilian football back for so long.”

All-time low

Today, Brazilian football is at an all-time low. The game is no longer their property: the belief that Brazilians were custom-made for football, producing the best the game has to offer, is on the wane. Since the early ‘70’s, Brazilian football has been in crisis when the seeds were planted for an anti-futebol outlook. Outstanding talent production obfuscated that reality, but that is no longer the case. When did Brazil last produce a genuine world-class midfielder? “Brazilian football is living a film noir of Ingmar Bergman,” noted Gontijo.

Paradoxically, the Olympic Games may further deepen the crisis if Brazil wins. Deniers will then hold the line that Brazilian football is still in fine health and that Brazil have won an adult tournament on its merits.

The squad is not as impressive as in the past: Neymar, almost a hunchback carrying the whole of Brazil, Marquinhos and Felipe Anderson are included, but out of 18 squad members, 12 ply their trade in Brazil in Rogerio Micale's squad, with newly-appointed coach Tite waiting in the wings to lead Brazil in the next World Cup qualifiers after the Dunga fiasco at the centenary Copa America, face South Africa, Iraq and Denmark in Group A. They won’t meet Germany, Mexico, Portugal or Argentina, other title candidates, until the semi-finals stage. In the second round, Colombia and Nigeria may be tricky opponents. At least a fatalistic early exit would push Brazilian football in the reformist direction.