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Brazil hopes to feed off famed Maracana in soccer semifinal

Gabriel Jesus, left, and teammate Neymar are looking to win Brazil’s first gold medal in Olympics men’s soccer. (Leo Correa / Associated Press)
Gabriel Jesus, left, and teammate Neymar are looking to win Brazil’s first gold medal in Olympics men’s soccer. (Leo Correa / Associated Press)
By Tales Azzoni Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazil will look for inspiration from playing at the historic Maracana Stadium when it faces Honduras in the semifinals of the men’s Olympic soccer tournament on Wednesday.

The decisive game will mark the debut of many of Brazil’s youngsters at the famed venue, which is expected to be packed with nearly 70,000 fans hopeful of seeing Brazil stay on track for its first soccer gold medal.

“We know about the importance of Maracana in the history of Brazilian football,” Brazil defender Marquinhos said. “We grew up hearing stories about the stadium. For everything that has happened there, it’s a special place for us. To be playing a semifinal and a final at the Maracana is like a dream to everyone who is here.”

The Maracana is Brazil’s most famous football stadium, having hosted two World Cup finals – 1950 and 2014 – and being home to some of the nation’s most important moments in club competitions.

Brazil coach Rogerio Micale, who will be making his coaching debut at the Maracana, took the time to walk onto the pitch of the empty venue after his pre-match press conference on Monday.

“It’s a great pleasure to be in a stadium like the Maracana, which represents so much to Brazilian football,” Micale said. “It will be a privilege for me and for my team to play such an important match at a stage like this.”

The stadium was home to the opening ceremony at the Rio Games, and will also host the closing ceremony. The first Olympic soccer match at the Maracana will be the women’s semifinal between Brazil and Sweden on Tuesday.

“I used to pass by the Maracana when I was just a fan and dreamed of one day playing there,” said Brazil midfielder Renato Augusto, a Rio de Janeiro native.

Brazil didn’t play at the Maracana at the World Cup in 2014 but it won the Confederations Cup at the venue the year before, in a final against Spain. If it beats Honduras, it will be back at the stadium for Saturday’s final.

Led by Neymar and promising youngsters Gabriel Jesus and Gabigol, Brazil is playing in its third-straight Olympic semifinal, and seventh overall. It lost to Lionel Messi’s Argentina in 2008 in Beijing, and made it to the final in 2012 in London but lost the gold to Mexico. Brazil has three silver medals and two bronze. The gold is the only significant trophy the five-time World Cup champions haven’t won in soccer.

Honduras reached the semifinals for the first time after eliminating two-time Olympic champion Argentina in the group stage and getting past South Korea in the quarterfinals.

“An Olympic semifinal to be played in a stadium with 80,000 people is a motivation for everyone. The world will be watching our game. Our players have to motivate with it and feel that they have to give their best in the field,” Honduras coach Jorge Luis Pinto said. “I am thinking a lot about Neymar and how I can control him. I’m looking for that player to mark him.”

Neymar struggled when Brazil opened with consecutive scoreless draws against South Africa and Iraq, but he and the rest of the team are coming off convincing wins against Denmark and Colombia.

In the other semifinal, which will be played in Sao Paulo later Wednesday, 1996 Olympic champion Nigeria will face Germany, which is playing in the Olympics for the first time since 1998, when U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann was on the team. Germany has the competition’s best attack with 19 goals. It eliminated Portugal in the quarterfinals.

Nigeria almost didn’t make it to Brazil in time for its opening game because of a trip mix-up, but it finished first in its group before eliminating Denmark in the quarterfinals. In addition to the gold in Atlanta, Nigeria also won the silver in Beijing in 2008.

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