It wasn’t beautiful and it certainly wasn’t easy, but Brazil beat Germany in a gut-churning penalty shootout Saturday to win its first-ever soccer gold medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The win on home soil represents partial redemption for the world’s iconic soccer nation after Germany destroyed Brazil in Brazil 7-1 to win their 2014 World Cup semifinal. Saturday’s Olympics gold erases nothing and is far from a permanent fix simply qualifying for the 2018 World Cup will be an uphill climb as things stand now. But it’s something, an imperfect catharsis, and another loss at home to Germany would have nearly felt fatal.
Superstar forward Neymar out injured when Germany filleted Brazil two years ago and triggered a national crisis converted the game-winning penalty. The clincher was a truly golden moment for Neymar, who entered these Olympics shouldering perhaps more pressure than any other athlete.
Let’s get into what Saturday’s gold medal win means, what it doesn’t mean and what it could mean.
A gold medal vs. the World Cup
Rio’s hallowed Maracana stadium was audibly on edge as the clock crept toward 90 minutes with Brazil and Germany stuck at one goal apiece, then more as the tie game went into 30 minutes of extra time. After scoring Brazil’s first goal Saturday, Neymar picked up a limp with about 10 minutes remaining in extra time but stayed on the pitch.
As the two teams prepared for penalties with the gold medal at stake, Germany’s players stood in a huddle. Brazil’s players, perhaps feeling the weight of a home crowd channeling years of national soccer angst, mostly sat splayed on the pitch before standing to form a huddle of their own.
The first players for each side converted. The second players for each side converted. The third players for each side converted. The fourth players for each side converted. Then Brazil goalkeeper Brazil goalkeeperWevertondenied Nils Petersen.
Up stepped Neymar for the gold. A higher power could not have scripted it any better.
Neymar laser beamed his shot into the upper right of inside of the net, and immediately burst into tears. He dropped to his knees on the Maracana pitch as the Brazilian fans erupted into pandemonium and then song.
An Olympics gold medal is not a World Cup. The latter is the pinnacle, the former is an afterthought in men’s soccer. Countries are allowed to bring only three players above the age of 23 to the Olympics, and the tournament is seen more as a high-level development opportunity. Neymar likely would not have played this summer had the games not been in Brazil, and national soccer not been at a crisis point.
But when you consider the recent past and near-term future of Brazilian soccer, this Olympics gold is huge. When you consider the hefty pressure placed on the slender shoulders of Neymar Brazil’s current torchbearer in the sport, following Ronaldinho and Ronaldo all the way back to Pele it’s massive.
The Brazilian Seleo is similar to FC Barcelona in club soccer or the NFL‘s Dallas Cowboys in that it regularly commands a level of attention and intrigue exceeding the bounds of fandom and sport that apply to normal teams. Perhaps the root of this is that soccer excellence and artistry have long been famously intertwined with Brazil’s national identity.
That’s why the 7-1 thrashing by Germany two years ago was so traumatic. That’s why “taking a 7-1” became Brazilian slang for bad defeats in politics and other realms of life. That’s why Saturday’s win over Germany, Brazil’s first Olympics gold, was extra sweet, extra symbolic.
Could this be our turning point?
The 7-1 atrocity of 2014 was followed by early exits for Brazil in the 2015 Copa America and 2016 Copa America Centenario, both major international tournaments. If qualifying for the 2018 World Cup ended today, Brazil Brazil! would not make the field. A rocky start in the Olympics put utter disaster in play.
Simply put, the world’s premier nation in the world’s most popular sport has never been so humbled. That’s why Neymar’s gold medal-winning penalty conversion released a pressure valve of national angst that’s been building for months.
Maybe we look back one day and this is where Brazil turned it all around. Neymar was out injured for the 2014 World Cup whooping by Germany. He won the Olympics in classic fashion against Germany, no less. What a tidy narrative point that would be for the resurrection of Brazilian soccer.
Alas, nothing is that simple and Saturday’s win as thrilling and deeply needed as it was doesn’t change the past. It doesn’t fix the future.
But it salves the present moment. For Neymar and Brazil, that’ll do for now.
Bonus: Neymar in #BeastMode