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Niyo: Brazil erases haunting past, wins soccer gold

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Neymar of Brazil celebrates with goalkeeper Weverton after scoring the winning penalty kick.

Rio de Janeiro — The roar that erupted Saturday night inside the famed Maracanã football stadium didn’t come from nowhere.

It came from the heart of nearly everyone in a crowd of 80,000 canary-yellow Cariocas. And the noise they made, reverberating through this stadium, echoing in every corner of this sprawling city of 6 million-plus and surely all across a massive country that claims ownership of a game we call soccer and they call their own, well, that was the sound an exorcism makes.

It was the sound of Brazil’s 2-1 victory in penalty kicks over Germany in the men’s football final here at the Rio Olympics. But it was also the sound of Brazil’s “largest ghost,” as one tabloid here had described it this week, the memories of that 2014 World Cup humiliation at the hands of Germany, being vanquished into the night.

It was deafening, and somehow it was melodic, the screams that turned to song just as soon as every last drink had been spilled in the stands.

And as the Brazilian star, Neymar, buried the final penalty kick — it had to be him, Neymar the Redeemer — it was something else. It was a grown man with a professional contract worth tens of millions immediately bursting into tears — “One of the best things that has happened in my life,” he explained later — and falling to his knees in a splendid, sobbing celebration.

“I told Neymar that God had given him a second chance,” said Brazilian goalkeeper Weverton Pereira da Silva, who was known simply as Weverton until now.

Now he’ll be known as a national hero, the man whose glorious save on Germany's Nils Peterson's attempt in the fifth round of penalties, set the stage for that dramatic 5-4 shootout triumph after a 1-1 tie in regulation and 30 minutes of overtime.

Likewise, this night will be known for something more than Brazil’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in soccer. It’ll be remembered forever as the signature moment of these Rio Games, the night the host nation rejoiced and was filled with immeasurable pride.

Brazilian goalkeeper Weverton Pereira da Silva makes a glorious save on Germany's Nils Peterson's attempt in the fifth round of penalty kicks.

Early, searing tension

But not before they’d endured more than two hours of searing tension.

After an early scare for Brazil — Julian Brandt’s shot from the edge of the box for the Germans caromed off the crossbar in the 11th minute — the hosts quickly regrouped. And it was the star of the seleção — as they call their national team here — that struck first.

Neymar’s perfectly-placed free kick from 25 yards out curled just under the crossbar in the near corner, beating German goalkeeper Timo Horn and unleashing a wild celebration that was years in the making. Neymar punctuated his own celebration with a pose mimicking Usain Bolt, who was cheering in the stands himself.

The fun lasted until a brutal giveaway by Brazil’s back line early in the second half. Germany’s Jeremy Toljan’s delivery across the goal set up Max Meyer for the finish in the 59th minute. It was the first goal the Brazilians had allowed all tournament, and it was the last thing the fans here wanted to see.

Because even the young ones here know the history.

Failure is part of the foundation of this stadium, you see, built as it was to host the World Cup in 1950.

That tournament culminated in a final match between Brazil and its tiny neighbor to the south, Uruguay. Nearly 200,000 fans packed the stands that day — there were no seats then, only concrete steps — and most came anticipating a glorious celebration.

Players were given solid gold watches inscribed, “For the World Champions” and the morning of the final, Rio’s O Mundo newspaper ran a photo of the team with a headline — “These are the world champions!” — that shared similar sentiments. Thanks to a round-robin format, Brazil only needed a tie to claim its first world title.

But they lost that day, 2-1, on a late goal, and “The Maracanazo” — roughly translated as “the Maracana Blow” — is still viewed as a national tragedy more than a half-century later. Brazilian soccer legend Pele says it was the first time he ever saw his father cry. Yet it would not be the last time this country wept over a game on home soil.

Two years ago, as Brazil once again hosted the Copa do Mundo, the crushing end came sooner, and even more disastrously. The loss to Germany in the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup is remembered not by a name, but instead by numbers — “1-7” — after Brazil finished on the wrong side of that lopsided result in Belo Horizonte, five hours north of Rio. It was a catastrophe from the start — Germany scored four goals in six minutes midway through the first half — and in the aftermath, more than simply the coach and the team were in disbelief.

Neymar was the only player on either roster both then and now, and even he wasn’t on the field in 2014, having suffered a back injury in the Cup quarterfinal win over Colombia.

Unfinished business

But it is no surprise he was here for these Olympics, and in this stadium Saturday, despite this Olympic tournament largely being an afterthought for the world’s best players. Neymar, who announced he was stepping down as the national team captain after the game, had unfinished business here, however. Countries are only allowed three players 23 or older on their Olympic rosters, and Bundesliga clubs in Germany’s top pro league didn’t release their players to compete in Rio.

So while this wasn’t Brazil’s best, it was hardly Germany’s best, either — though you wouldn't have known it the way the unflappable young German side played for much of the night — and a loss would’ve ranked right up there with the worst.

The Brazilian coach, Rogério Micale, had exhorted his team to do more after a shaky start to the Olympic tournament. And even after a six-goal outburst against Honduras in the semifinals, he noted, “We are playing the beautiful game” — in some ways, the ultimate compliment for Brazilians — “but we know this is not enough.”

Everyone in this country knew that, no matter how hard Micale tried to downplay the revenge factor in the days leading up to Saturday night’s final. And most of all, Neymar knew it, as he stood ready to take that final penalty kick.

“The only thing on my mind,” he said, “was I had to do this.”

He did it. They did it. Finally, the ghost was gone, and it was time to scream.

Neymar of Brazil celebrates with his gold medal after the men's soccer final.