Selecao end Olympic hoodoo

Brazil captain and match winner Neymar celebrates the hosts' capture of their first Olympic football gold. In a 5-4 penalty shoot-out win over Germany, Brazil went some way to put to rest their World Cup demons.
Brazil captain and match winner Neymar celebrates the hosts' capture of their first Olympic football gold. In a 5-4 penalty shoot-out win over Germany, Brazil went some way to put to rest their World Cup demons.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Neymar leads Brazil in capturing the only major football title to elude the samba kings

So what if it was just the Olympics? So what if it was only against Germany's Under-23 team? And so what if it took a penalty shoot-out to get the win?

Brazil have finally won the gold medal in football since they first contested the sport at the 1952 Helsinki Games and that was enough.

It meant everything to captain Neymar as he fell to his knees after his winning spot-kick. It was Brazil's biggest victory of the Rio Games - despite the five golds the hosts had already won - to the 80,000 packed inside the city's fabled Maracana Stadium. It became a night of catharsis for the nation.

There were 306 gold medals on offer at this Summer Games but only one could send a shockwave across the 200 million inhabitants of the world's fifth-largest country.

SILENCING THE NAYSAYERS

This is one of the best things that has happened in my life. Now they'll (the critics) have to swallow what they said.

NEYMAR, the Brazil captain, who was heavily criticised for his underwhelming start to the Olympics.

"We made history," Neymar said. "This tournament had a special meaning for Brazil. This is one of the happiest things that have happened to me."

Brazil, five-time World Cup winners, are a team and a people defined by their football success. Yet recent failure has haunted them.

Besides the 2013 Confederations Cup triumph, Brazil have not won a major trophy since the 2007 Copa America. The last of their World Cup wins came in 2002.

That 7-1 shellacking by the Germans in the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup on home soil has remained scar tissue while the Olympics - the only major honour missing from hundreds of trophies inside the Museu Selecao Brasileira - has brought only frustration and heartbreak. Brazil reached three Olympic finals in 1984, 1988 and 2012, and lost all three.

But that all changed on Saturday night in the bowels of the Maracana with one blast from Neymar's right foot. The net bulged and a guttural, feral roar erupted around him.

This time, the tears that fell from the crowd of faces - one of the ladies carrying the tray of medals for the victory ceremony could not stop sobbing afterwards - were of joy and redemption.

The stadium shook as shirtless men jumped and embraced while a grandfather wept while cradling his grandson. Even the stoic military guards hugged each other.

The stadium announcer had earlier declared that two of the six exits were closed for spectators but he need not have bothered. No one in the Maracana, including Jamaican sprint legend Usain Bolt, wanted to leave after the final whistle.

People sang and danced, took photographs and drank more Skol beer. Fireworks burst above the stadium and around the city as drivers honked in celebration and fans partied through the night in Copacabana. It was Carnival, traditionally held in February, all over again.

"This restores our self-esteem," Brazil coach Rogerio Micale said. "We see that not all was lost, our football is still alive. There are some things that need to be fixed, but today we were able to make our people happy."

Each time the Selecao drove forward into Germany's final third, their supporters sprang to their feet in unison, holding their breaths in full anticipation of a goal.

They were rewarded in the 26th minute when Neymar's stunning 25-metre free kick crashed against the underside of the bar and bounced over the line. It was his fourth goal of the competition and the knockout rounds as the No. 10 finished as their top scorer.

Luck seemed to desert the Germans in the first half as they hit the crossbar three times. But captain Max Meyer drew them level in the 59th minute, getting into the box to sweep home a cross from the right.

That was the end of scoring in regulation and extra time, leaving the match to be decided on penalties. Both teams scored their first four attempts until substitute Nils Petersen's shot was parried by Brazil goalkeeper Weverton.

The shot-stopper said: "I studied his last eight penalties and knew he would shoot to my left. It was the perfect time to make the save because we had the chance to win immediately after and we had our best player taking the kick."

The role of villain was cast - Petersen later admitted he was affected by the intimidating atmosphere - and it was left to Neymar, the only player from either team involved in the last World Cup, to become a national hero.

He had been injured and watched that 7-1 hammering helplessly. But his was a decisive role this time.

After the medal presentation, as his team-mates strolled around the field and soaked in the moment, Neymar climbed into the stands and like a rock star in a mosh pit, was carried by his adoring fans.

There could not be a more fitting end to the night, as Neymar, who had erased years of pain at this hallowed ground, lifted his country to new heights.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2016, with the headline 'Selecao end Olympic hoodoo'. Print Edition | Subscribe