Neymar struck gold for Brazil to ease the pain of the country’s worst ever defeat and finally deliver the Olympic title that has for so long eluded soccer’s greatest superpower. At the end of a penalty shootout of agonizing tension at Rio's famed Maracana Stadium, Weverton’s save from Germany striker Nils Petersen gave Brazil’s golden boy the chance to to ensure his legacy would be one of glory and not failure.
And, just as he had done in regulation time, when scoring a brilliant free-kick that was later canceled out by Germany's Max Meyer, Neymar delivered in emphatic fashion. With the weight of a nation on his shoulders, he coolly sent the net bulging to bring tears of delight and relief not only for himself him but for the thousands watching at a packed Maracana and the millions glued to screens around the Olympic host country.
While football may not be the sport most synonymous with the Olympic Games around the rest of the world, it was by some distance the event that feature most prominently in the mind of the host. It is a country for which football is king, while there is little history to attach it to most of the traditional sports that earn the Olympic spotlight.
Not only that, but Olympic gold in football has an importance in Brazil far above that in any other nation. For the five-time World Cup winner it is the one prize to have proved elusive, with three silver medals and two bronze the sum total of its reward.
That alone would be enough to ensure Saturday's final top billing among the highlights of the Games for the Rio natives. But a clash with Germany meant it was always going to be mean far more.
While it wasn’t 7-1 and it wasn’t the World Cup, the result has now earned Brazil a measure of catharsis from its most humiliating day. That it was Neymar, the player who could only watch on injured from the sidelines as Brazil sunk to its infamous defeat to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinal, who came up with the goods both in regulation time and in the shootout only adds to the magic of the moment for a country that has witnessed its once beloved team fall into mediocrity in recent years.
From the start, the match was engrossingly end-to-end. While Brazil went on the attack with a quartet of forwards that had fired 12 goals in its last three matches, Germany sent its full-backs flying forward and had its own trio of danger men playing off central striker Davie Selke.
Brazil had its openings, with Luan, whose entrance into the starting lineup for the final group match sparked Brazil’s goal glut, failed to make clean contact with a volley, while midfielder Renato Augusto erred similarly after getting a sight of goal from two Neymar corners.
But there was also plenty to quicken the heartbeats of the vast swathes of yellow that packed out the Maracana. Indeed, Germany hit the crossbar three times in the opening half. The first came in the 11th minute, the same minute that saw Thomas Muller score in the semifinal two years ago to begin Brazil’s night of humiliation. Julian Brandt’s effort was so close to perfection, beating Weverton in the Brazil goal only for the crossbar to come to the host’s rescue.
In a clear symbol that this was a game of inches, Neymar soon after hit a free-kick equally sweetly and this time the ball came down off the underside of the bar and into the back of the German net to spark an outpouring of elation at the Maracana.
It was Brazil’s only effort on target of the half and, after two headers flew against the crossbar at the other end, Germany will have gone into halftime wondering quite how it was behind. That Brazil was living on the edge was only emphasized when a shot from Meyer looped up off a Brazilian defender and Waverton came perilously close to taking it back over his line as he collected the ball into his midriff.
For all its near misses, Germany was undeterred beginning the second half. And in the 59th minute it had the equalizer it deserved. Finally Brazil’s defense that had gone unbeaten through the first five games was breached. And it was one of the men most responsible for the team’s run of clean sheets, Marquinhos, who was partly responsible.
The Paris Saint-Germain defender gave the ball away when passing out of the back and Brazil never recovered as the ball made its way to Jeremy Toljan out on the right. The young full-back sent it a low cross that Lars Bender stepped over and Meyer, a 20-year-old who already has vast Bundesliga experience with Schalke, finished crisply first-time into the bottom corner.
Only minutes later, any momentum Germany might have hoped to have built up was stalled when one its three overage players and a key figure in the midfield, Lars Bender, was forced off with injury. Brazil surged forward again, its desperation for a winning goal spilling over into the dark arts as Luan threw himself to the floor in the box under no contact.
While they had prospered in the three matches leading into the final, the young trio of Luan, Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Barbosa struggled to make an impact on the biggest stage. Increasingly, it looked like it would have to be Neymar to come up with some further magic. He was let down late on when his fine through ball found substitute Felipe Anderson, on for Gabriel Barbosa, but the Lazio winger failed to get a shot away.
Brazil was in the ascendency, but the tension was palpable, particularity any time Germany even approached the Brazilian penalty area. Extra time brought an added 30 minutes of soccer that surely no Brazilian in attendance at the Maracana wanted.
The anxiety only increased. And it was audible as Luan was sent clear in the first period of extra time but dallied when cutting back onto his left foot and eventually had his effort blocked with Neymar waiting in the middle of the box. The frustration continued for Neymar. Having sent Felipe Anderson through again he watched on as the substitute this time had his shot blocked by Horn. Brazil was the team trying to get a winner, Germany the side more content to take its chance in a shootout.
Given Germany's reputation as international soccer's penalty kings and Brazil's women's team only days earlier crashing out in the semifinals on a shootout, those in yellow must have been fearing the worse. But this time it was Germany's turn to taste the agony of defeat, ending its hopes of an golden double after its women's team claimed the title at the same stadium the previous day.
After eight penalties had been converted, substitute striker Peterson wavered first thanks to a diving save rom Weverton, who was only in the squad because of a late injury to Fernando Prass. Neymar was in no mood to prolong Brazil's wait for gold any longer.