RIO DE JANEIRO — In a dramatic penalty-kick shootout, Brazil finally won its long-awaited first gold medal in Olympic soccer on Saturday (5-4 on PKs after a 1-1 draw), and it did it on home soil at the hallowed Maracanã Stadium. Star forward Neymar converted the winning spot kick in the fifth round after Brazil goalkeeper Weverton had saved Germany’s Nils Petersen just before that.
When Neymar’s penalty hit the net, a sold-out Maracanã burst into a roar so loud that few in attendance had ever heard anything like it. Even though the Olympic men’s soccer tournament usually pales in comparison to the World Cup—it’s an age-restricted tournament, with only three players over age 23 allowed per team—this gold medal was the most important one to win of this Olympics to the Brazilian population.
After nearly a century of failure in Olympic soccer, Brazil is finally a gold medalist.
Here are three thoughts on the game:
Neymar came up huge
The pressure on Neymar’s shoulders in this game was immense. He’s the biggest soccer star in Brazil and the only player on this Olympic team who was on Brazil’s 2014 World Cup squad. Toss in the home-crowd expectations and Brazil’s previous failures to win Olympic gold, and you had a player who had to produce something special. And he did, the way the biggest stars do.
Neymar’s brilliant first-half free kick beat German goalkeeper Timo Horn and unleashed a giant roar in the Maracanã, as if the place was about to lift off into orbit. Neymar’s gloriously long celebration—including Usain Bolt's trademark pose with the Jamaican record-setting track star in the stands—was straight out of WWE and kind of perfect. Then, after limping badly toward the end of the game, Neymar produced the winning spot kick and sent more than 80,000 people into delirium.
Germany slightly outplayed Brazil
Aside from around 30 minutes in the first half, the Germans were the better team overall. Brazil was far too reliant on Neymar to provide any real threat in the attack, and there were times when you just wanted Brazil’s other players to push forward and trust themselves.
Playing in a hostile environment, the unflappable young Germans acted like they were the home-field team for much of the game, staying poised in defense and well-drilled in the attack as a team. Meanwhile, the Brazilians relied more on their effort than on any organization. The German development system that created the 2014 World Cup triumph is still producing a lot of terrific young players like Max Meyer, Julian Brandt, Jeremy Toljan and more.
Brazil can finally start having some pride in its men’s national team again
Don’t believe for a second that this Olympic gold medal will in any way ease the pain of the 7-1 loss to Germany in the World Cup two years ago. But Brazil needed this shot in the arm for pride reasons. The Seleção are in sixth place in World Cup qualifying right now and didn’t even get out of the group stage of this summer’s Copa América, leading to the firing of Dunga as the coach. But things may finally be starting to turn around.
The new senior team coach, Tite, has had extensive success at club level here with Corinthians and seems like the right man for the job. (He certainly has the public’s support.) And if Neymar can get the support he needs, it’s possible for Brazil to become Brazil again.
This Olympic gold medal was a start.