Brazil's penalty kick victory over Germany in the Rio Games gold medal soccer match washed away a string of recent disappointments for the country's national team, at least for one day.
Eric Seals-USA TODAY Sports
Thousands sat and stood intensely watching the two billboard-sized screens inside the Olympic Park in Rio. For 120 agonizing minutes, they cheered for every attack, cursed as Brazil squandered scoring opportunities, and flinched every time Germany threatened to end their party. But they couldn't turn away.
Now, as the Rio Games gold match had come down to a penalty kick shootout, they were on the cusp of putting all of the failures of the last two years behind them. One kick from Neymar would give Brazil its first soccer gold medal, and put the nation back on top of international soccer.
Neymar readied himself for the kick at Maracanã Stadium, just over 14 miles away from Olympic Park. No one spoke as the anticipation and anxiety reached a crescendo. The whistle blew. Neymar ran. The ball hit the back of the net.
The park erupted. Beer flew. Flags waved. Couples kissed. Men hugged. Music blared. Brazil partied. This made up for the humilating 2014 World Cup semifinal loss. This made up for the struggles they national team had endured in the years since. This made up seeing the squad cycle through three coaches over the past three disappointing summers
"It's a beginning of a new era," said a dark-haired young Brazilian named Pedro Toledo, who wore the country's crest on his yellow shirt. "It's like going back to the golden age of Brazilian soccer."
This was the party the country had expected when it was awarded the 2014 World Cup in 2007 and the 2016 Olympics in 2009. At the time, officials and citizens celebrated the return of soccer's biggest tournament to Brazil and the first South American Olympic games. The country that lives and breathes the sport would have two opportunities to prove that were soccer's best.
Brazil seemed destined for success in the run up to the 2014 World Cup. The 2012 Olympic team, primarily players who would be on the subsequent World Cup roster, won silver in London. Those same players won the 2013 Confederations Cup, a warm-up tournament held the year before the World Cup in the host country. With those victories brought increased expectations that Brazil would be the first team since France in 1998 to hoist the trophy on home soil. "Nobody expected that we would lose [in the World Cup]," said Ronaldo, a middle-aged soccer fan from Rio de Janeiro.
Brazil managed to advance to the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup, but it came at a heavy price. Neymar was sidelined for the tournament after suffering a back injury in the quarterfinals and Thiago Silver couldn't play due to yellow card accumulation. The difference those two players made for Brazil became clear in the next match. That match.
The Germans attacked relentlessly; then the barrage opened. Germany scored four goals in a nine-minute span that left the Brazilians wondering what happened. As the match ended, the Brazilian crowd at Belo Horinzonte began cheering on the Germans as their own players walked off the pitch in embarrassment. Manager Luis Felipe Scalari subsequently resigned.
"I felt pain in my heart," said Alex, who had come out to enjoy the potential party with Ronaldo.
That was just the start. Brazil failed to advance out of the quarterfinals of the 2015 Copa America tournament, then failed to get out of the group stage of Copa America Centenario this summer. Those results, along with Brazil's struggles in the current World Cup qualifying cycle forced out manager Dunga, leaving the team in flux going into the Rio Olympics.
"We don't know why Dunga was the coach," Alex said. "Nobody knows. We expect something better."
Brazil started poorly in the Olympics, failing to score in its first 206 minutes of play. Tensions rose as the country faced a humiliating exit in the group stage. But Garbiel changed that worry into relief, scoring in the 26th minute against Denmark to put the hosts into the quarterfinals. Relief turned into anticipation as Brazil took down South American rivals Colombia and then throttled tournament surprise Honduras 6–0.
But in Saturday's gold medal match, a German side once again stood between them and soccer glory. The crowd at the Rio 2016 Fest in the Olympic Park, however, remained unfazed by the familiar and challenging opponent. Fans arrived with smiles on their face as circles of "keepie uppie" began to pop up on the lawn. Others led pockets of people in various songs about the team, creating a festive atmosphere.
They were rewarded for their confidence in the 26th minute when Neymar's free kick clipped the underside of the bar and crossed the line. Fans leapt from their seats, throwing their hands up in the air, high-fiving the person next to them and screaming to release the nervous energy that built up during the start of the match. The tables had turned from the other Germany game; now they were the ones ready to party.
However, the joy didn't last long. The Germans needed 14 minutes in the second half to level the score, turning the park into a powder keg of emotions. The crowd met every missed opportunity with annoyed yelling and disappointed gestures. Their frustration needed no translator. All of it added fuel to the impending explosion.
Regular time passed without another goal. So did 30 minutes of extra time. The match came down to the two most dreaded words in the sport: penalty kicks. The crowded let up an audible "ooh" for every German score, then screamed for every Brazilian response.
Finally, after Brazliian goalie Weverton saved Nils Petersen's kick, the powder keg erupted. A minute later, it reset for Neymar's clinching kick. Fans hushed as he ran up to the ball. Everything the Brazilian people wanted in the last two years stood on the line. Then all heck broke loose. The crowd leapt into the air, releasing a single yell that could be heard for miles. Supporters found the closest person they could find to hug. Others ran around in what little empty space they could find. Some sent what they had left of their Skol beer flying into the air.
All the disappointment, all the frustration and strife—both inside the sport and politically—disappeared in that moment. In its place stood Brazilian pride and unbridled joy.
"It's like Brazil was just reborn in soccer," said a young Brazilian named Fabio Maluf who came with his dad to celebrate. "After 14 years we've won another title and it's so important to the country so that we can keep believing in soccer in Brazil."
Naysayers will claim that an Olympic gold medal doesn't mean much in international soccer. After all, it's a glorified U23 tournament and teams that have won Olympic gold haven't had great success in senior tournaments.
But the yellow, green and blue clad fans in Olympic Park couldn't be bothered by such opinions. They were too busy starting their party. The Brazilian music continued. The drinks continued to flow. The sounds of the national anthem reverberated through the park as the Brazilian flag was raised at the Maracanã. Fans from other countries joined the festivities.
It came two years later than expected, but Brazil finally got to enjoy the party they threw for the rest of the world.