From the moment Nils Petersen applied a simple finish into the net with a minute remaining of Germany’s semifinal against Nigeria at Sao Paulo’s Arena Corinthians on Wednesday, the narrative began writing itself. It would be Brazil versus Germany in Brazil once again. Two years on from perhaps the most startling result in the history of soccer’s World Cup, when Germany beat the host and five-time winner in the semifinals, the two nations will face off in the final of the Olympic Games.
Even before Germany had finished disposing of Nigeria 2-0, a few hours after Brazil had swept Honduras aside 6-0, the word instantly on everyone’s lips was “revenge.”
Just what measure of revenge victory for Brazil at the Maracana on Saturday would provide, though, isn’t exactly clear. The Olympics is primarily an Under-23 competition — with three overage players allowed for each team — and doesn’t come close to matching the significance of the World Cup. In many parts of the world, the competition, particularly as it takes place right at the start of the European club season, isn’t taken all that seriously.
Yet to Brazil it is a competition that very much matters. For all its accomplishments and its reputation as the spiritual home of the beautiful game, Brazil has never won gold in Olympic football. Three silver medals and two bronze only add to the sense of frustration that gold has proved so elusive. While the rest of the world focuses on track and field and swimming, sports that get their biggest spotlight during the Olympics, in the host country itself no event will match the Olympic football final for attention.
Plenty of reason, then, for Brazil to talk up the significance not just of a gold medal but of getting one over on the country that inflicted its greatest humiliation. But for the time being, ahead of kickoff, the narrative of revenge is an uncomfortable one for Brazil, too.
Brazil began the competition 10 days ago as the undoubted favorites. Not only did it have home advantage, but it had the one truly global star to have been selected for the Games in captain Neymar. But immediately such expectation became a burden for a squad which, although it may not featur a single player who took the field against Germany on that fateful day in the Mineirao two years ago, carries the burden of past failure.
After back-to-back goalless draws against South Africa and Iraq, Neymar and his team was greeted by boos from their own supporters. Aided by a tactical switch by coach Rogerio Micale, who was temporarily promoted on short notice from his role with the Under-20 team, Brazil has flourished since, scoring 12 goals in three games to romp into the gold medal match.
But the pressure going into the final against Germany of all teams will be higher than ever. No wonder, then, that Micale has been keen to quash any talk of 2014.
"That was the World Cup. This is the Olympic team,” he said in his press conference in Rio. “Neymar never played in that match so there is nothing that could generate any type of feeling that we have to take revenge. It is a different time with different players.
"The supporters are playing their role and we will need the supporters as this is a very strong German team. The supporters will want what they want, but there is no link between that match and this one.
"I am sure the final with Germany will be a great match but it has nothing to do with the past.”
If Brazil is eager, for now, to avoid talk of the past, Germany’s Julian Brandt cites it as extra motivation. Like Brazil and Neymar, Germany’s one player at the Olympics who was included in the 2014 World Cup squad, Matthias Ginter, did not feature in that semifinal.
Instead, Germany has a young and inexperienced roster in Brazil and carried limited expectations into its first Olympic appearance since 1988. But those that were selected have already shown that the future for the 2014 World Cup winners continues to look bright.
Brandt, a 20-year-old winger at Bayer Leverkusen, has impressed as part of an attacking midfield trio alongside Schalke playmaker Max Meyer and Arsenal’s Serge Gnabry, who leads the competition with six goals.
And Brandt believes all the pressure will all be on Brazil in Saturday’s final at the Maracana.
“It's a dream come true to play in such a traditional and well-known stadium,” he told Fifa.com. “Repeating the scenario of 2014 is also pushing the team forwards. The pressure is not really on us, the pressure is more on the home team.”
Kickoff Time: Saturday, 4.30 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: NBCSN
Live Stream: NBCOlympics.com