RIO DE JANEIRO — The soccer power that’s won everything else in major international competition finally has its Olympic gold medal. And it did so in the most dramatic fashion possible.
Neymar scored the deciding spot kick in a riveting penalty shootout to give Brazil its first Olympic championship in men’s soccer at the Rio Games on Saturday. The host nation won the shootout 5-4 after goalkeeper Weverton blocked Nils Petersen’s fifth-round penalty to keep it at 4-4.
Successful penalties by Renato Augusto, Marquinhos, Rafinha and Luan gave Brazil the tying spot kicks to put the pressure back on Germany. Petersen was the first to crack as Weverton dove to his left to block the PK with both hands.
The Maracana crowd roared knowing full well who would step up to take advantage of Germany’s misfortune — Neymar. He slowly approached the ball, stuttering his steps to cause German goalkeeper Timo Horn to wait impatiently a few seconds longer before depositing the ball into the lower right corner to spark scenes of cathartic celebration all around the stadium.
“It is one of the happiest things that happened in my life,” said a relieved Neymar, who also announced that he decided to not become the full-time captain of Brazil’s national team. “I am very happy.”
“We started with hard work and everything happened the way it did, to the end that way, on penalties with the last ball,” Brazil coach Rogerio Micale said. “These players, with dedication, delivery, is a closed-knit group.”
Two years ago, the Germans spoiled Brazil’s party when they beat the World Cup host 7-1 in a semifinal defeat that led to worldwide embarrassment for the five-time world champion. Saturday provided the perfect opportunity to avenge the lopsided loss that mentally scarred most, if not all, supporters of the Selecao.
Payback is what the fans were calling for even before Brazil discovered it would play Germany in the men’s soccer gold medal match. They chanted as much in the second half of Wednesday’s 6-0 semifinal rout of Honduras, yelling “Germany, your time is coming!” in hopes of exacting revenge for the national nightmare two years ago in Brasilia.
Before Saturday’s final, Micale tried to downplay the importance of getting even with the Germans. But afterward, he acknowledged the therapeutic powers of a legendary victory, even if it is an Olympic tournament for under-23 sides featuring only three over-age players.
“I think it’s a rescue of our self-esteem,” Micale said. “We see that all is not lost. Our football is alive. We need to hit, but I’m happy about today. I am happy to participate in it.”
Neymar had the home fans thinking optimistic thoughts early after he produced his own Olympic moment for the ages. From a sharp angle to the left of the goal, he bent a brilliant free kick into the top, near-post corner to give Brazil a 1-0 lead in the 27th minute, and paid tribute to the star of these Summer Games not named Michael Phelps by celebrating with the trademark archer pose of Usain Bolt, the track and field god who scored his third straight hat trick in Olympic sprints.
Germany, though, produced more scoring chances than Brazil in the first half. It finally broke through when a patient build-up after a Brazilian giveaway resulted in Max Meyer being left all alone in the middle of the box to slot home a 59th-minute equalizer.
The dread of the Maracana faithful grew with every minute toward extra time. The pain of another mentally scarring loss was too much to take for the Brazil fans, who were desperate for a go-ahead goal to avoid a shootout with the country best known for winning such tests of mental strength from 12 yards away. They finally rained boos on the Germans for their time-wasting game of keep away in their own half.
It didn’t matter. The Brazilians were clinical in their penalty taking, even though Neymar’s PK will be the one they’ll add to the reel of the Selecao’s greatest moments. Before the medal ceremony, Maracana chanted “Campeoes! Campeoes!” and you would’ve thought another World Cup was won. It was Olympic gold, only the most important medal for this Summer Games host to win. Finally.