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My best moment

It's pure gold at football cathedral

The Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence is 232 years old and is the home of David. The Maracana in Rio is 66 years old and on Saturday was the house of Neymar. Whether he was as divine as Michelangelo's David depended on whether he won.

The Olympics offer me a rare chance to witness high-class diving, gymnastics, weightlifting. Football I get every week except this is not any football. This is Brazil, in Brazil, at the Maracana, which on Saturday is a sort of wet, chaotic Sistine Chapel. (If I keep bringing up ancient places of beauty it's because that's what Brazilian football is.)

The Chapel is stunning by itself, but this stadium needs people to bring it to life. Once the Maracana held nearly 200,000 fans; now it holds less than half, almost all draped in yellow. It resembles a circular field of swaying sunflowers. It is the happiest stadium I will visit.

Sitting in front of me was Felipe Gaspar, 32, and his father Arnaldo, 60, who rarely watch football together but this was Neymar, Maracana, gold. Holy stuff. Felipe respected the occasion by downing frothy holy liquid, known here as Cerveza, and even as he cheered he did not spill a drop. An omen surely.

History and modernity give this day meaning for me. I grew up reading about Alcides Ghiggia, the Uruguayan who scored the winning goal versus Brazil here in the 1950 World Cup. "Only three people have silenced the Maracana," he said, "the Pope, Frank Sinatra, and me."


An emotional moment for Brazil captain Neymar and Rafael Alcantara, after the Olympic hosts beat Germany on penalties in the football final at the Maracana. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

I read, too, about the Gol de Placa, which translates to "a goal worthy of a commemorative plaque". It was scored here in 1961 by Pele for Santos, a feat of such beauty that it earned him a two-minute standing ovation. There is a plaque honouring the goal in the stadium but two TV journalists told me it was in the museum which was closed.

This history gave the match significance but it is who Brazil currently are which gave the day poignance. They are like everyone now, no longer superior, and oddly that's sad. They won once as if it was their right and now they only hope to win. So there is delight in every Brazilian cry but also desperation. It is a sound I don't hear anywhere else.

Does redemption exist in sport? Can victory make up for defeat? The loss to Germany was at the World Cup and these are the Olympics. But right now any type of winning will do for Brazil in football.

There are machines to calculate decibel levels but there should be one to measure the joy. It is maddening and moving. Braazil, Braazil, Braazil. They have won. Not a beautiful game, just a beautiful day.

I shake Felipe's hand. A woman shakes mine. I am privileged to share their moment. On my last day in Brazil I get to truly feel Brazil. Neymar is on his knees. His penalty is in. It's a goal that's not worth a plaque. Only gold.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2016, with the headline 'It's pure gold at football cathedral'. Print Edition | Subscribe