Reigning champions Brazil were held to a goalless draw by the Ivory Coast in the men’s Olympic football competition on Sunday, while Andre-Pierre Gignac’s hat-trick in a 4-3 win over South Africa kept France’s hopes alive.
Brazil, who won gold for the first time five years ago on home soil in Rio, could have moved to the brink of qualification for the knock-out stage in Yokohama but were denied by a stubborn Ivory Coast.
It could have been worse, though, as they had to play more than an hour with 10 men after Aston Villa midfielder Douglas Luiz’s 13th-minute red card for bringing down Youssouf Dao when he was through on goal.
Eboue Kouassi’s late dismissal evened up the numbers, but the Ivorians held on as former Barcelona winger Malcom missed a late chance for the South Americans.
Brazil lead Group D on goal difference ahead of their final game of the opening phase against Saudi Arabia, who face Germany later Sunday.
France would have been staring at an early exit with a slip-up against South Africa, but veteran striker Gignac rescued Les Bleus in a pulsating match in Saitama.
The Group A encounter burst into life after a goalless first half, which saw South African midfielder Luther Singh miss a penalty, as Kobamelo Kodisang put the underdogs ahead eight minutes after the restart.
The 35-year-old Gignac, captaining France in Japan, levelled shortly afterwards, only for Evidence Makgopa to restore South Africa’s slender lead in the 72nd minute.
Former Marseille star Gignac, who last played for the French senior team in 2016, equalised again.
Teboho Mokoena thought he had won the match with just nine minutes to play with a wonderful curling strike that flew in off the crossbar, but Gignac slotted home his fourth goal of the tournament from the penalty spot five minutes later.
– France almost ‘on plane back’ –
There was still time for France to snatch a winner, as Gignac found Teji Savanier to drill in a low strike in the second minute of added time.
“After each South African goal it felt a little more like we were on the plane back,” said Gignac, who has played for Mexican club Tigres since 2015.
“We saw the joy after Teji’s goal and we gave ourselves a final against Japan. With heart, we can do well. We don’t want to return to France.”
South Africa, who were hit by two players testing positive for Covid-19 in the Olympic Village before the tournament started, will need to beat Mexico in their last group game and hope other results go their way to have any chance of making the last eight.
Elsewhere, New Zealand missed an opportunity to all but qualify from Group B as Honduras came from behind to win 3-2 in Kashima.
Argentina bounced back from their opening defeat by Australia in Group C with a 1-0 victory over Egypt.
Later Sunday, Japan take on Mexico and Germany play Saudi Arabia.