Barcelona star Neymar led Brazil to their first ever Olympic gold medal in soccer by means of a penalty kick victory over Germany at the Maracana Stadium on Saturday afternoon after the game was tied 1-1 at the end of regulation time. The game opened with spirited play from both sides with Neymar playing in a more central position than for his club team Barcelona, thereby functioning as both a playmaker and an attacker. Germany’s Julian Brandt hit the cross-bar in the 11th minute with a rocket of a shot that had beaten the diving Brazilian goalkeeper Weverton. Struck by the realization that the crossbar had saved them from a 1-0 deficit, Brazil started to impose themselves on the game by means of patient development through the midfield led by Neymar, Douglas Santos, Luan and Renato Augusto. Rather than attacking using a set of overlapping fullbacks that crossed the ball into the box in the vein of the national team from days past, Brazil U23 opted to try to take control of midfield and advance laterally up the field while Germany, on the other hand, deployed dangerous counter-attacks through the center and down the left flank led by Gnabry. Neymar opened the scoring in the 27th minute with a spectacular, curling free kick that gave the hosts the psychological boost they needed. The captain Neymar had both earned the free kick and curled it over the German wall into the roof of the net to give Brazil its first ever lead in an Olympic soccer final and offer hope that they could shake off the stigma of their humiliating 7-1 defeat to Germany in the 2014 World Cup final almost a year ago.
Before the first half ended, Germany responded to Brazil’s goal with two attempts in the subsequent ten minutes that hit the cross-bar and demonstrated their ability to find ways through Brazil’s disciplined midfield and central defense. Germany’s persistence paid off in the 59th minute when Toljan raced down the right flank and crossed to his captain Meyer, who promptly dispatched a low ball into the back of the net to level the score at 1-1 and subdue the rapturous crowd at the Maracana stadium that had begun to dream of Brazil achieving its first ever Olympic gold. With the score even at 1-1, Brazil realized they would need to work for a gold medal and methodically began exploring new ways to break down the German defense, led in large part by substitute Felipe Anderson, who entered the game in the 70th minute for Gabriel ‘Gabigol’ Barbosa. Anderson gave Brazil an additional attacking option on the right flank and down the center, allowing Neymar to withdraw deeper into midfield and vary his play by focusing on orchestrating attacks via through balls that sliced open the heart of the German defense on more than one occasion. Anderson had a glorious opportunity to make it 2-1 for Brazil within minutes of entering the pitch via a through ball that left him with only the keeper to beat, but his lack of decisiveness allowed Germany to foil the attack and keep the score level.
As the game reached extra time, Brazil intensified the pressure with Douglas Santos finding Luan on the right hand side of the box, but Luan opted to shoot through a crowd of German defenders instead of passing to Neymar, who was wide open in a central position. Germany’s Brandt had a shot sail over the crossbar in the 97th minute but it was Brazil who upped the ante for the remainder of extra time by continuing to patiently probe a German defense that packed the box and advanced via pacy but increasingly infrequent counter-attacks. As the match went to penalties, the odds appeared to tilt in Germany’s favor given the national team’s legendary record of maintaining their composure in high pressure situations as well as the pressure faced by the home team, particularly given Brazil’s inability to win Olympic gold to date. After both teams converted the first four penalties, Germany’s Nils Peterson failed to convert thanks to a brilliant, diving save from Weverton, leaving Neymar to step up to the plate with the opportunity to clinch the elusive Olympic gold medal for Brazil. Neymar took his trademark long run up with the stutter step intended to keep the goalkeeper guessing, and then fired the ball into the top right hand corner into the net to bring Olympic soccer gold medal to Brazil for the first time in the competition’s history. Neymar broke down in tears as did many of his teammates after realizing a dream that had eluded teams that included legends such as Ronaldo, Romario, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka.
While penalty shootouts are always disappointing, Brazil played better football for the greater part of the match. That said, Germany had more high percentage chances in the first half than did Brazil and, as such, could well have changed the complexion of the match in the event they had converted one of their shots on target into a goal. Nevertheless, the world witnessed an epic battle between two of the world’s soccer superpowers that signals that Brazilian football is not quite dead in the vein that many have surmised. Neymar underscored his dominance as one of the world’s best footballers by illustrating his ability to perform in high pressure situations and lead Brazil to one of its most significant victories in soccer in its illustrious history. Neymar’s tears of joy illustrated the depth of his commitment to the national team and the sport in general after leading Brazil to its first Olympic goal when many commentators had dismissed both Brazil and Neymar after their uninspiring performances in the first two matches of the group stage against South Africa and Iraq. The 2016 Olympics showcased the birth of a new generation of Brazilian footballers although the national team clearly has more work to do if it intends to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, let alone win the tournament. Kudos to Brazil coach Rogerio Micale, Neymar and the entire squad for prevailing against one of the best national teams in the world. For the purists, Brazil’s Olympic victory means that Brazilian soccer is still alive and kicking after a shameful performance at the 2014 World Cup, particularly given the nexus of Neymar’s skill, leadership and psychological strength.