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Surfing world champion Gabriel Medina’s birthday bond with Neymar

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Of Brazilian Gabriel Medina‘s 7.7 million Instagram followers, most began tracking him after his first world surf tour win at age 17, his first world title at 20 or his second crown last year at 24.

But not Neymar. The soccer icon with 113 million followers got in on the ground floor. On Medina’s 14th or 15th birthday, to be more precise.

At the time, either in 2007 or 2008, Neymar was already big in Brazil, though he didn’t start playing professionally until 2009 and didn’t move from Brazil’s domestic league to the titans of Europe until 2013.

“My manager told [Neymar] I wanted to meet him, and then he pretty much organized it,” Medina said in December. “I met [Neymar] first time at his house in Santos.”

Medina, who lived a 90-minute drive from Santos in Sao Paulo, celebrated his birthday by presenting a gift to his fellow precocious athlete, a surfboard.

The two since palled around Brazil and Europe, playing Counter-Strike and poker and hanging at Carnival and on cruises, Medina said. In 2014, Neymar promoted on his social media a live broadcast of Medina’s competition as he tried to become South America’s first world champion in surfing, which makes its Olympic debut in 2020.

Neymar, whose lone sibling is a younger sister, calls Medina his brother. He attended a World Surf League contest in Portugal in October.

“Really good friend outside of the beach and inside of the beach and in the soccer fields,” Medina said. “He put a lot of work and is one of the best. It’s good to have a friend like that.”

Medina was in Rio for the start of the Olympics, a few weeks after he became the first surfer to land a backflip in a contest. But he had to leave before Neymar penned the moment of the Games, slotting the shootout winner to deliver Brazil its first Olympic soccer title.

Two months later, Medina’s stepfather and coach, known in Brazil as Charlão, was involved in an unspecified incident involving World Surf League officials.

He was suspended for six months. Medina struggled early in the 2017 season, rebounded to win the ninth and 10th events but lost in the quarterfinals of the Billabong Pipe Masters finale, ending his comeback bid and allowing American John John Florence to clinch a repeat title.

Medina said his climb back in 2018 to his first world title in four years was more difficult than earning that maiden crown, when he became the youngest male world champ since Kelly Slater won the first of his record 11 titles in 1992. Medina, whose favorite tattoo is a family crest inside his upper arm, mentioned dealing with his dad’s situation.

“When you win the first one you kind of get in a comfortable zone, you know?” he said. “That’s why I think the second is harder. You have to put a lot of work, even more than the first one.”

Brazil had its most successful Olympics ever in Rio, unsurprisingly, with national records of seven gold medals and 19 total medals. It finished 13th in the medal standings, also a best. Those numbers are expected to descend without a home-field advantage in Tokyo. The addition of surfing should be a boost, though Medina is not guaranteed one of two Brazilian spots at the Games. Three of the top four men in last season’s world tour standings were from Brazil.

Which led Medina to proclaim that surfing has passed volleyball as Brazil’s second-most popular sport.

“Of course,” Medina said, “soccer is No. 1.”

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Kylian Mbappé eyes Olympics

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French World Cup star Kylian Mbappé said he wants to play at the Olympics, according to RMC Sport.

“With France, I still have the European Championship to win. I would also, why not, like to compete in the Olympics,” Mbappé said, according to reported translations.

Mbappé, the second-youngest player at the World Cup, has age working in his favor.

Tokyo Olympic men’s soccer teams are limited to players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997, with three exceptions. Mbappé, who turns 20 on Dec. 20, easily makes the under-23 cutoff, so France would not have to use one of its over-age spots on him.

However, Olympic football qualifying is much more exclusive than for the World Cup. Only four European nations will qualify for Tokyo via the 2019 UEFA U-21 Championship, and France hasn’t put a men’s team into the Olympics since 1996.

Mbappé may need his club team, currently Paris Saint-Germain, to sign off on him playing at the Olympics, which start less than two weeks after the Euro 2020 final. Mbappé potentially playing in both Euro 2020 and the Tokyo Olympics could create another Neymar situation.

France should receive automatic entry into the 2024 Olympics as the host nation. In that case, Mbappé would have to be one of the nation’s over-age exceptions.

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic eyes 2016 Olympics

Zlatan Ibrahimovic
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Sweden striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic was one of the best players left out of the World Cup in Brazil last summer.

But he could play in an international tournament in Brazil in 2016, at the Rio Olympics.

“If the chance presents itself, I could represent Sweden at the 2016 Olympics,” Ibrahimovic, 33, told Swedish outlet Aftonbladet, according to comments translated by ESPNFC. “I have never played that competition as yet. I don’t know if I could be available for the team — but if I am, it’s ‘yes.'”

Ibrahimovic and Sweden were eliminated in World Cup qualifying by Portugal in a playoff last year.

Olympic soccer teams are made up of players aged 23 and under. There’s also an option of having three over-age players, which is where Ibrahimovic would come in.

Sweden hasn’t qualified for the Olympic men’s soccer tournament since 1992.

The only men’s soccer player at the 2012 Olympics who was older than Ibrahimovic will be in 2016 was Ryan Giggs, who was 38. Giggs, a longtime Manchester United star from Wales, is one of the greatest players of all time never to play in a World Cup. He was part of the first Great Britain Olympic soccer team since 1960.

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