Neymar steps up as Brazil finally finds its voice
From the bowels of the Maracana a loud and terrifying noise went up: a guttural, feral roar that seemed to swallow the stadium whole. The Brazilian players sank to their knees, almost too physically tired and too emotionally drained to celebrate. Brazil, a country that regards football as its birthright, were Olympic football champions for the first time in their history.
It took until day 16 for these Olympic Games to find their voice. Or at least their Brazilian voice, as almost 80,000 fans present and many millions more in the suburbs and favelas of the world's fifth largest country exhaled a cry of exultation, of gratitude, but especially of relief. Of the 306 gold medals on offer, this was the one they craved above all others. After two hours of nerve-shredding grief and a penalty shoot-out of the shrillest tension, it was finally in their grasp.
And the man who stepped up to score the match-winning penalty? Who else? Neymar: the centrepiece of a team that is the centrepiece of these Games that is the centrepiece of this country. Few of us can contemplate the pressure he would have been under at that moment. But in Neymar Brazil trusted. And characteristically, he delivered.
All of which perhaps overshadows what was a terrific final, a Hitchcock thriller of a game in which Brazil dominated large parts but threatened to toss away via the tombola of penalties. The mood in the stadium as the whistle blew at the end of extra time was not, it has to be said, especially buoyant. This is a country that has pessimism running through its veins. Murphy's Law may as well be renamed Brazil's Law: if a defeat is there for the seizing, they will seize it.
So it was only the Olympic Games. So it was only Germany's under-23 side. So what? The desire for some sort of satisfaction after the humiliating 7-1 defeat at the World Cup two years ago felt raw, almost desperate. "TIME FOR REVENGE," squawked the headline on the front page of O Dia newspaper on Saturday morning. The Germans were booed as they took to the pitch for the warm-up. The Brazilian national anthem was belted out like a hymn for salvation.
But mostly, the defining emotion of the evening was nervousness. A fearful, sweaty-palmed angst settled on the Maracana like fog and only really lifted after about 26 minutes, when Neymar placed a free-kick on the turf. Brazilian shirts amassed in the area, but they knew as well as anyone that they were props, scenery, meat in the room. Neymar was taking this on.
He stepped up, a short run of just two or three paces. The ball hung in the air like a Zeppelin: spinning, looping and then finally - devastatingly - dipping. There was perhaps a flannel-sized portion of target for Neymar to aim at, and he had found it. Goalkeeper Timo Horn flapped at it like a dying fish, but ultimately he too was merely an extra in this production.
The ball hit the bar, bounced over the line, and by the time it had bounced up again into the roof of the net, nothing else mattered. Brazil's bench broke free and surged to acclaim their leader. Men and women in yellow shrieked into the night. Neymar himself looked skyward and pointed, saluting the only man in Brazil more popular than himself.
Could Brazil hold on? Well, this was Brazil. And after the power chords and stirring solos of the first half, it was a strangely lo-fi Seleçao who reassembled for the second: still occasionally threatening on the break but unsure how to manage the game, caught between defending their lead and pushing for a second, and ultimately doing neither.
Julian Brandt and Sven Bender had both hit the bar in the first half, but now they made their move. And it was a lovely move, involving Brandt, full-back Jeremy Toljan, both Bender brothers and Max Meyer, who crept into Brazil's midfield vacuum to slam the ball home from 16 yards. It was the first goal Brazil had conceded in the tournament.
One each, and all of a sudden Brazilian foreboding, never that far from the surface at the best of times, emerged once more. It grew in pitch and volume as chances for Renato Augusto, Gabriel Jesus, Neymar and Luan all came and went. It surged as the whistle blew for 90 minutes and extra-time dawned. More chances were missed: Luan, Felipe Anderson, Neymar again. Germany, surprisingly lacklustre going forward, were brilliant in defence, Lukas Klostermann of Leipzig making one particularly good last-ditch tackle to deny Luan.
Penalties arrived with the inevitability and menace of a rain shower. This was Germany, after all, and when they scored their first four penalties, Brazil feared the worst. But Renato Augusto, Marquinhos, Rafinha and Luan all held their nerve, and when Weverton dived to his right to save from Nils Petersen, the Maracana exploded, an explosion that seemed to part the clouds.
Neymar put his penalty high into the net, and before the ball had even dropped to the ground, Brazil was aflame. And perhaps one day, Brazil will remember this night as the night it learned to love its national game again. Neymar's kick will not erase the shame of Belo Horizonte in 2014. It will not boost Brazil's oil exports or fix its political system. It will not make the streets safe at night or get back the billions of reais it has spent on a Games it scarcely wants.
But at 8.10pm on August 20, 2016, Brazil was happy. And nobody in the Maracana Stadium will ever forget it. (© Daily Telegraph, London)