Every once in a rare while, a sports story comes along that seems so perfectly scripted, a story steeped in history, dripping with drama and with a happy ending that is almost too sappy to be true.
That kind of story unfolded before the world’s eyes on Saturday night at iconic Maracana Stadium, the cathedral of Brazilian soccer, where superstar Neymar stepped up to the penalty spot with the nation’s lofty goals and pride weighing on his shoulders and proceeded to score the biggest goal of his life when it mattered most, when the pressure was most intense.
He converted the deciding penalty in a 5-4 shootout over Germany to secure the country’s first Olympic soccer gold medal and exorcise soccer demons in an emo tionally charged match befitting a World Cup final.
When his game-winning penalty shot rocketed past German goalkeeper Timo Horn, Neymar crumpled to the ground and cried as the 78,000 fans in the stadium and all of Brazil erupted into a party that surely will last long after the Closing Ceremonies end Sunday night. Horns honked. Strangers hugged. And Copacabana got even crazier than usual.
“The only thing on my mind was I had to do this,” Neymar said. “I can’t begin to describe my feelings. I have fulfilled my dream and to have fulfilled it in my home country makes me very proud.”
Renato Augusto added: “I was born in this area, near Maracana, so this is even more special. … This has been a childhood dream.”
Yes, this city and country has problems, which have been well-documented by the international media over the past few weeks, but this country now owns the Olympic gold medal in soccer, and Brazilians could not be more proud of their national colors. It showed when they all belted out the national anthem as the yellow, blue and green Brazilian flag climbed up the flagpole during the medal ceremony.
Nobody was singing louder or more passionately than Neymar, who took a victory lap and was still posing for photos with fans long after the stadium was clearing out.
Other than the Christ the Redeemer statue that watches over this city of 6 million people, Neymar, the 5-9 Barcelona star, is the largest figure in Rio after that game. Considering the political turmoil here right now, if he ran for president on Monday, he’d surely win.
For two years this soccer-obsessed nation has been in mourning after an embarrassing exit from the 2014 World Cup at the hands of Germany. On home soil, no less. The strong, organized Germans flummoxed and dismantled Brazil 7-1 in the most lopsided semifinal game in tournament history.
The Brazilians’ soccer psyche was wounded that day in Belo Horizonte. It was wounded badly. And they were haunted by the indignity until Saturday night.
The two teams were completely different from the ones that played in Belo two summers ago. Neymar, 24, was the only player from either roster Saturday who played in that World Cup, and even he did not play in the semifinal, as he had sustained a back injury in the quarterfinal against Colombia.
This time, it was a battle between the nations’ Under-23 squads, with three overage players allowed per team.
But that didn’t matter. It was Brazil vs. Germany. Again. For a major international title.
Brazil had won five other gold medals at these games — in beach volleyball, pole vault, judo, boxing and sailing — but the one fans coveted most was soccer gold. The women’s soccer team fell short with a penalty shootout loss to Sweden. So, all hopes rested with the men.
Three times before, in 1984, 1988 and 2012, Brazil had played in the Olympic final. They lost all three times.
Even before the game began, it was obvious how much this match meant to every Brazilian player and fan. The neighborhood around Maracana was buzzing several hours before the game with fans draped in Brazilian flags and covered in face paint.
Within minutes of the opening whistle, the crowd erupted in a deafening chant of: “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ola, Ney-mar! Ney-mar!” They serenaded their hero throughout the match and long after it ended.
He delivered. Neymar gave Brazil a 1-0 lead in the 26th minute with an arching free kick that sailed just under the crossbar. At that same point in the game two years ago, Germany was already ahead 5-0.
German captain Max Meyer then tied it up in the 59th minute, the only goal conceded by Brazil the entire Olympics. The score remained deadlocked through 120 minutes before the dramatic penalty shootout. Brazil got inside the box over and over, but the Germans remained organized and efficient, their trademark.
Both teams converted their first four penalty kicks before Nils Peterson of Germany had his shot blocked by Brazilian goalkeeper Weverton, setting up one of the most thrilling moments in recent Olympic history. It would all come down to Neymar. Who else? If he made it, Brazil would win.
He did a stutter step to throw off Horn, hesitated for a moment, and then blasted the shot to the right. Pandemonium! Storybook ending.