Neymar burst into tears almost as soon as that liberating penalty kick had connected with the twine of the goal at the Maracana.
Sometimes, a moment of national healing is televised. Brazil’s relief at clinching the Olympic gold medal in soccer on home soil in Rio de Janeiro was audible, reverberating as a long, hearty roar. The players tore about the field, not quite knowing what to do or where to go, and a natural ecstasy rolled over the stands.
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Brazil wanted desperately to win it. To make amends, insofar as that was possible, for the humiliation of the 2014 World Cup. And of the 1950 World Cup, even.
Both were staged in Brazil. But 66 years ago, the Selecao was upset by Uruguay in the would-be final. In 2014, Germany hammered a Neymar-less Brazilian team 7-1 in the semifinals, before going on to win the thing. It is easily the greatest sporting humiliation in Brazil’s history.
So these Olympics mattered a great deal more than they usually do. To Brazil, anyway. Which made it all the harder to stomach when they dominated South Africa and Iraq yet were forced to settle for 0-0 stalemates in their opening games. Had they lost – or, in some scenarios, even tied – with Denmark, the Brazilians might not have even survived the group stage. But they finally learned how to cope with all that anxiety and beat the Danes 4-0, Colombia 2-0 in the quarterfinals, and Honduras 6-0 in the semis.
In the final awaited Germany. Big, scary Germany, inflictors of that six-goal hiding.
Brazil celebrated uncommonly hard when Neymar put them ahead with a splendid curler of a free kick to the near post inside half an hour – after being chopped down for the umpteenth time in this tournament. As if the thing was already won with more than an hour left to play.
Germany, however, hit the cross bar three times in the first half. The World Cup champions deserved better than the deficit. And Die Mannschaft got their due in the second half, when, in the 59th minute, Max Meyer was given way too much room in the area as he met Jeremy Toljan cross and scored.
Brazil hadn’t conceded all tournament. And now they couldn’t hold onto the lead in the final, to the despair of the packed Maracana, built for that 1950 final and now the venue of an international title at last.
It was sort of ironic that Brazil should dominate the second half, since they’d fail to score but did concede. Just as Germany lost the first half, when they were the better team. Late on, several Brazilian chances could have been converted into an Olympic title, but they came up short on finishing when it mattered. Brazil again had a chance to take the game early in extra time, but Luan overlooked a wide-open Neymar and took a limp shot of his own instead. The catharsis would not come easily.
Neymar hurt his hamstring towards the end of extra time, the upshot perhaps of playing in every single minute of the tournament, even in the two blowouts. Brazil pressed and pressed for a winner. None came.
Penalties. Against Germany, the boogeymen from two years ago and the kings of penalties. Just days earlier, the Brazilian women’s national team had seen their Olympic campaign ended in the cauldron of penalties as well.
Brazil’s Weverton came close on two of the first three German attempts but didn’t save either. On the fourth, he again went the right way yet come nowhere close to it. But the fifth was his, as he parried Nils Petersen’s effort, denying a fellow overage player.
Neymar then hammered home the winner and unloosed pandemonium.
Most of all though, he brought his nation relief. The Brazilian men’s soccer program has been in freefall since the World Cup. After a quarterfinals elimination at the 2015 Copa America, the team didn’t even reach the knockout stages of the 2016 Copa America Centenario. Currently, Brazil lingers outside of the qualifying places for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. There are plenty of issues off the field as well.
But the ghosts of 1950 were banished on Saturday night. And those of 2014 at least confronted, if perhaps not entirely chased from Brazil’s collective memory. After two years in which everything seemed to go wrong, something finally went right. And in the most dramatic way possible.
Neymar cried. And his teammates cried. And the coaching staff cried. Happy tears. The pressure had been colossal. But they had managed. They’d done right by a country that had lost faith and, by many accounts, interest.
For a few fleeting moments at least, Brazil was a winning soccer country again.