RIO DE JANEIRO — The roar went up from the yellow throng, as clear as a call to arms, and reverberated through the Maracanã Stadium, the most sacred ground in Brazilian soccer.
GERMANY, JUST YOU WAIT! YOUR TIME IS COMING!
Brazil was blowing out poor Honduras in the men’s Olympic soccer semifinals—it would end up winning 6-0—and the crowd knew who it wanted next in the final. Brazil has never won an Olympic soccer gold medal, and now it will have the chance to do so on home soil against the country that scarred Brazil forever two years ago in a 7-1 World Cup semifinal thrashing in Belo Horizonte.
Brazilian soccer fans are savvy, of course, and they know that beating Germany on Saturday won’t erase the 7-1 in a World Cup that mattered far more than this age-restricted one. Each team has only one player from that World Cup, Neymar for Brazil (and he missed the dismantling with a broken bone in his back) and Matthias Ginter for Germany. But winning a long-awaited soccer gold medal would begin to restore Brazilian pride in ways that transcend soccer and extend to the Brazilian culture as a whole.
Simply put, Brazil is tired as a nation of taking it on the chin. It’s tired of hearing foreigners take shots at Brazil’s economy, at the Zika virus, at the organization of these Olympics, at the lack of safety here in Rio. It’s tired of hearing jokes about 7-1, too.
Brazil wants to have faith in its futebol again, and that starts this week. As Rogério Micale, the Brazilian men’s Olympic coach, said after Wednesday’s game: “I still believe in Brazilian soccer.”
Let there be no confusion: The most important gold medal to Brazilians in this Olympics has nothing to do with the pole vault or judo or beach volleyball. The most important gold medal would be in soccer. And if it comes against Germany, which raised the Trophy of Trophies in this very stadium just two years ago, then so much the better. Of course, if Brazil were to lose to Germany again, in the Olympic final, in the Maracanã? Perhaps it’s best to leave that one unpondered for now.
It was clearer than ever on Wednesday that when Brazil plays in the Maracanã it’s different than in other Brazilian stadiums. Three long years had passed since the last time Brazil’s men's national team had played in (with apologies to Madison Square Garden) the world’s most famous arena—a 3-0 win over Spain in the Confederations Cup final on June 30, 2013. That game had felt like a religious experience, with a full Maracanã singing the Brazilian national anthem a cappella after the music had ended and Brazil slamming the reigning world champions on the field.
Truth be told, that was the last high point for Brazilian soccer. Until Wednesday, the national team had played nearly everywhere in Brazil except the Maracanã over the last three years. Part of the reason has been circumstance: Brazil missed out on the Maracanã in the World Cup by losing to Germany. And part of the reason has been to use the fancy new stadiums built in places like Recife and Manaus and Brasília. But another reason has been this one: Those cities have almost unconditional support for the national team.
The relationship between Rio’s fans and the Brazilian national team is far more complex. Brazilian fans will always feel closer to the (mostly lesser) stars they see every week in the Brazilian league instead of the highly paid Brazilian superstars in Europe. What’s more, Brazil’s senior national team doesn’t play very often in Brazil, preferring instead to make money for the Brazilian federation by scheduling friendlies in the U.S. and other foreign countries.
Even Neymar, the biggest name in Brazilian sports, has faced the heat from Brazilian fans who booed him during these Olympics when Brazil opened the tournament with 180 minutes of 0-0 ties against humble South Africa and Iraq. The Brazilian media joined the dog pile on Neymar, questioning what happened to the golden child of old who spent part of his summer hanging out with Justin Bieber in Los Angeles. At Brazil’s women’s games, fans were scratching out Neymar’s name on their jerseys in magic marker.
Perhaps that criticism drove Neymar on Wednesday to produce his best game of the tournament. He scored just 14 seconds into the game against Honduras as Brazil’s pressure forced a horrendous mistake by the Honduran back line. The Brazilian goals began raining from the sky, six in all, the last one scored on Neymar’s penalty kick and exuberant celebration. (He gleefully pantomimed sinking a three-pointer afterward.)
“I would say in the good sense that Neymar is a monster,” said Micale after the game. “He has a gift of playing soccer, he absolutely delights everybody with his talent … There is a lot of pressure and demands on him. He is living through a positive period, as opposed to a week ago where there were a lot of demands and pressure on him.”
Micale even dared to use the sacred phrase jogo bonito—the beautiful game—on Wednesday. A return to Brazil’s entertaining past is something he promised before the Olympic tournament, and against Honduras his team delivered.
“I think we have had a good campaign so far,” Micale said. “And with this final stretch we are exhibiting good soccer, a soccer that we envisioned to show, a soccer that has our essence, our characteristic, which is a beautiful game played well. But we also know that this is not enough and that the team has to struggle out there. So this is what they have done. They have pressured the opponent. They have been unselfish in passing the ball. And we were lucky enough to score a goal at the beginning.
“This is the fruit of Neymar’s struggle, which has been constant, and not only his.”
In the blistering heat just three days before the final, most coaches would have taken out Neymar with a huge lead to rest him for the gold medal game. But Brazil is different. The Maracanã is different. It felt like Micale had an obligation to the fans, perhaps even to Neymar, to keep him out on the field. And so he did.
Yet even after his masterly performance, Neymar still refused to speak in the mixed zone after Wednesday’s game, shaking his head as he passed through. Many Brazilian journalists booed—the only boos Neymar heard all day.
That won’t be the case on Saturday if Neymar and Brazil can beat Germany. But there will be only one way for the yellow jersey to start getting its mojo back this week, to start making the nightmare of 7-1 less raw.
Brazil must win. There is no other option.