If the script writer had offered this up before kick-off in Saturday night’s Brazil v Germany Olympic final here at the Maracana they’d have been sacked for being too fanciful. It was fairytale, make-believe, hard to fathom stuff as Neymar, the darling of the Selecao, scored the 10th and decisive penalty in a shootout to win it 5-4 and to seal gold for his country.
The match ended 1-1 in normal time as Neymar, (who else?), scored a brilliant free-kick that looked like it would lead Brazil to glory. But the Germany captain Max Meyer equalised on 58 minutes. There were chances – nothing golden – but the two couldn’t be separated…until the incredible drama of the penalties.
Germany went first in the shoot-out, Matthias Ginter scoring amid deafening jeers. Renato Augusto lifted his into the top corner. Serge Gnabry, of Arsenal, put his through Weverton. Marquinhos scored. Julian Brandt fired home. Rafael Alacantra sent the goalkeeper Timo Horn the wrong way: 3-3. Niklas Suele drilled into the corner. Luan buried the reply: 4-4.
Then Weverton, wide-eyed, saved Nils Petersen’s kick. Cue Neymar who rolled the ball home, sending Horn the wrong way. Cue bedlam. Cue gold. Cue tears from Neymar who fell to the turf on his knees – the weight of an expectant nation lifted.
Before kick-off as “next stop Maracana” was announced on the Metro it was met by a huge cheer, then one man of many in Brazil shirts shouted: “If Germany win this, I’m leaving the country.”
He doesn’t need to sell up now. He can stay and celebrate Brazil’s first Olympic football gold medal – and what a way to do it. Germany are meant to win penalty shoot-outs.
The win, in some part, exorcises the demons of Germany’s humiliating 7-1 World Cup victory that shattered the hosts up at Belo Horizonte two years ago. That, of course, denied them the chance to win the trophy on home soil, something Uruguay had also done back in 1950 in that infamous final here at the Maracana.
This golden victory – the Selecao’s first major tournament success on their own turf - will ease the pain.
Neymar, who was also brilliant in the 6-0 semi-final victory over Honduras, was the first name to be chanted by the 80,000 raucous Brazil fans in this famous old footballing theatre – and he was the last.
Rogerio Micale’s team again played in the 4-2-4 formation they have adopted since drawing the first two group games 0-0. It had been a roaring success: since the blanks they had won 4-0, 2-0 and 6-0 on their way to the final. But Germany were quick to try to exploit the flanks: Julian Brandt fired wide and Weverton had to be quick off his line to nullify the next attack.
There were whistles whenever Germany were on the ball, cheers when Brazil won it back. But the Maracana fell silent on 10 minutes and held its breath when Brandt bent a right-foot shot from outside the box on to the Brazilian bar with Weverton at full stretch.
There’s something magical about Brazil at the Maracana under floodlights with the yellow-clad crowd jumping in support and they nearly had something tangible to cheer on 12 minutes – but Luan didn’t connect properly with his volley and it was headed clear.
Two of Germany’s overage players – all bar three of the squad must be under 23 by Olympic rules – Bayer Leverkusen’s Lars Bender and his twin Sven of Dortmund were breaking up Brazilian play in midfield by fair means or foul – like big kids spoiling a children’s party. But there was little they could do to stop the hosts taking the lead on 26 minutes.
Another Brazilian attack had been crudely halted resulting in a free-kick some 30 yards out. Up stepped Neymar and bent a quick, dipping strike off his right instep that smacked the underside of the bar – with Timo Horn flailing in the Germany goal. The ball bounced down over the line and up into the roof of the net. As it did so the Maracana exploded. Neymar ran to the touchline screaming and was soon engulfed in a pile of yellow.
Germany fought back, though, and on the half-hour a Meyer free-kick, after Zeca had chopped down Gnabry, sliced off Marquinhos and clipped the bar. From the corner Weverton had to save from a Meyer drive.
Three minutes later Germany hit the bar for the third time in the half when Sven Bender flicked a header on to the top of the frame from a free-kick after Gabriel Jesus, who Manchester City have bought for £27m, had hacked down Brandt.
Early in the second half Neymar fouled Lukas Klostermann in almost the same spot that he had scored from. But Gnabry is no Neymar and his effort hit the wall. As Brazil sat back the pressure grew.
It eventually told on 58 minutes when Brazil twice gave the ball away twice in quick succession. On the second occasion the full-back Jeremy Toljan was set free down the right and his cross was turned in by a sweep of captain Meyer’s boot.
It couldn’t happen again, could it? Brazil were determined not to let it and responded magnificently, Renato Augusto driving wide of goal and then Gabriel Jesus just turning a cross wide. The City new boy was in again when Neymar put him in but just as he was about to pull the trigger Klostermann nicked the ball. Neymar then dinked an effort wide as the Maracana turned up the dial again.
But Brazil couldn’t find a way through. The agony was prolonged.
In extra time, Gabriel Jesus was once more put through but cut back into the recovering defence and moments later Luan was guilty of the same crime. Brandt then lifted a volley over the bar.
On 107 minutes, Neymark flickered into life and put Felipe Anderson through with a perfectly timed pass but Horn was out to smother the shot. The clock ticked, the Maracana twitched.
With both sides running on empty the game slowed. Germany then had a spell of unthreatening possession as time ran down and the whistling from the Brazilian fans was ear-splitting. But not quite as loud as the roar that greeted Neymar’s penalty.
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