RIO DE JANEIRO — “Brazilian soccer is not dead.”
It may not be a statement you’d put on a bumper sticker, but the words of Rogério Micale, Brazil’s men’s Olympic soccer coach, were exactly what this country was looking for from the nation’s first soccer gold medal in its history. Plenty of too-cool-for-school soccer observers will be quick to deride Brazil’s historic Olympic triumph—achieved on penalties against Germany—for what it isn’t instead of for what it is.
Here is what it is not:
• Revenge for the 7–1 loss to Germany in the World Cup. (That trauma will never go away, and men’s Olympic soccer is an age-restricted tournament anyway.)
• Evidence that Brazil’s soccer structure has been fixed. (Even Brazilian federation insiders admit otherwise.)
• Reason to think Brazil will be a favorite to win World Cup 2018. (With the senior team currently in sixth place in South American World Cup qualifying, Brazil is hoping just to make it to Russia.)
But anyone focusing on those things is missing the point. Brazil’s stirring victory in a sold-out Maracanã Stadium on Saturday, featuring a glorious free kick goal and a game-clinching penalty by superstar Neymar, was pure theater, a chance with the world watching for Brazilians to finally start feeling some pride again in a national institution.
At a time when Brazil has been taking hits for its political and economic shambles, for the Zika virus and Rio’s safety issues, for that awful 7–1, the chance to end nearly a century of Olympic soccer failures was something that mattered here. No Olympic gold medal mattered to Brazilians more, in fact, than this one. Will the 2020 men’s Olympic soccer tournament mean much to Brazilians? Probably not. But this one certainly did.
“I’m sure this will give reason for pride and confidence for the Brazilian people and the national team,” said Micale, the mild-mannered coach who brought the team back from two scoreless draws against South Africa and Iraq to start the tournament. “We know the huge responsibility on the shoulders of the Olympic team. After all, soccer is the No. 1 sport in Brazil. But this [post-World Cup recriminations] phase now is passed. We can look toward the future of Brazilian soccer more confident, more proud and, once and for all, Brazilian soccer is not dead.”
The 24-year-old Neymar, in particular, lived a real-life Brazilian novela in this Olympic tournament. He is Brazil’s biggest sports star, and he was put on this Olympic team for two reasons: 1) Brazil had never won Olympic soccer gold before, and 2) It couldn’t afford an embarrassment on home soil. And so Neymar skipped June’s Copa América with the senior team and missed the start of the Spanish season for Barcelona to be here over the past three weeks.
And it got off to a nightmare start for him. Brazil’s inability to score over 180 minutes against two lightly regarded Under-23 teams set off alarms all over Brazil. Fans started scratching out Neymar’s name on Brazil jerseys with magic markers and booing him from the stands. The Brazilian press was merciless too, and after the Iraq game Neymar refused to speak to the media in the postgame mixed zone and press conference. That would continue for the rest of the tournament, even after his moment of glory in the final.
So be it. That’s his call. But whether he was talking or not, Neymar’s semifinal and final performances were electric. He scored just 14 seconds into the 6–0 semifinal win against Honduras and added a second on a penalty just before the end. Then in the final, Neymar’s gorgeous free kick goal grazed the underside of the crossbar and gave Brazil a 1–0 lead that threatened to send the Maracanã into orbit.
Neymar tired as the night went on and Germany equalized as the game headed into extra time. He was visibly limping, at some moment barely able to move. But he had one more moment of magic left. During the penalties, which were taken well by both teams, Neymar had been given the No. 5 slot by Micale. It was actually bad strategy, since you never usually want your best penalty-taker to go fifth, for fear that he’ll never get the chance if his teammates miss.
But from a dramatic perspective it was fantastic. In the fifth round, with penalties tied at 4–4, Germany’s Nils Petersen had his kick saved by Brazilian goalkeeper Weverton (one of the few Brazilian top-level players who comes from the Amazon). Neymar walked slowly to the spot with the Olympic gold on the line. “The only thing on my mind was I had to do this,” he told a TV reporter on the field.
And so he did. Pandemonium in the Maracanã.
“It gives us huge pride to share the gold medal with Neymar,” said Micale afterward. “We know he’s a reference for Brazilian soccer, but just as Neymar was brilliant scoring the fifth goal in the shootout, Weverton the goalkeeper made a special defense. We knew when we called him up that he might be called on to do exactly that. And he didn’t let us down.”
The Maracanã rejoiced, and Rio rejoiced, and the medal that Brazil had to win was won.
There are a lot of things that this gold medal is not. But it still matters. Brazilian soccer is not dead.