The one medal that mattered to Brazil
By CATHAL KELLY
Monday, August 22, 2016 Print Edition, Page S4
RIO DE JANEIRO -- The Rio Olympics began as a pan-Brazilian concern at 8:03 local time on Saturday night, a few hours before they ended.
At that moment, a shootout for the gold medal in men's soccer between Brazil and Germany began.
It is customary in these situations that Germany win. They haven't ever lost a big match on penalties (or maybe it just seems that way).
At that moment, for the first time since this thing got under way more than two weeks ago, Rio stopped. The traffic ebbed.
The city noise died away. All of Brazil concentrated its energies on something every single Brazilian cares about.
Six minutes later, it was down to the Neymar. Because, who else?
The generally accepted strategy in penalties is that you line up your most dependable shooters first. Why take the chance of saving someone for last if you can't be sure you'll even get that far?
Brazil scuppered the usual tactics largely, one suspects, for the sake of theatre.
At 8:09, Neymar stutter stepped, opened up his body, hit it with his in-step and earned Brazil back its soccer dignity. For the first time here, the city felt collectively Olympic.
There was only one medal at these Games that mattered to the home country. Neymar won it for them.
"There's no pressure when you're making a dream come true," Neymar once quoted a wise man [Neymar] saying. It doesn't make much sense, but he proved it Saturday.
Another generally accepted rule of finals is that they should be dreary. This was the exception that proved it. Over 120 seesaw minutes, Brazil reminded the world that they created most of what we consider the best parts of this game.
In turn, Germany reminded Brazil that though they are not always the most effervescent side, regardless of their personnel, no other is more effective.
From the start, Germany preferred the match caged. Neymar sprang it open with an inch-perfect, long-distance free kick after 26 minutes. From that point on, it ebbed and flowed in the way great matches tend to do. Germany equalized in the 59th. For the remaining hour, either side could have won it.
But you knew it was always going to penalties - the most wretched way to end any important contest, as well as the most perfect.
After Neymar sealed it, he collapsed to his knees in tears. Brazilian goal keeper Weverton had a little more presence of mind - he grabbed the ball out of the net and stuffed it under his shirt for a keepsake.
Though we've spent the last little while celebrating all the great Olympians - Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, et al Neymar was undoubtedly the most globally recognized athlete at these Games.
For long stretches, he might've preferred to be anonymous.
After Brazil tied its first two matches, the entire country climbed up on his back.
Brazil has been in a bad state, soccer-wise, for a few years. That is an unacceptable state of affairs.
Neymar was expected to swim out from shore and push the floundering ship upright by himself.
Had he not, this game might've been his Golgotha. Brazil is not kind to its failed soccer stars - and occasionally, even to its successful ones. It doesn't matter how great you are, a soccer player is measured by his titles.
When it was most important, he was at his tricksy best. But it all could have come apart had he missed in the end.
You could tell that in his reaction - something beyond the usual face-clutching and pointing up toward God. Neymar lay on the ground for a long while, body convulsing spasmodically with sobs. He's 24 years old and, whatever else happens, his professional legacy is secure. He's finally a winner in the colours of his country.
This success allows a great many things to happen.
It lets Brazil off the hook for a mediocre Olympic performance - 13th on the official medal table, behind Hungary.
It permitted Pele to show up at Sunday night's closing ceremonies after his transparently phony excuses about the opener. He'll want a bit of that reflected glory.
It wipes away the taste of all that's gone wrong here and/or besmirched the host country - the petty crime, the organizational snafus, Ryan Lochte.
Most importantly, it allows Brazil the chance to claim that they are once again champions at the sport that binds them.
Before this gold, it had been 14 years since Brazil won the major soccer trophy - the 2002 World Cup. They haven't captured a Copa America as South American champions in a decade. They had never won at the Olympics.
In the interim, they'd been humiliated at a home World Cup and generally nosedived in global opinion. Most observers now consider Brazil a country coasting on its reputation, with little top-end talent to back it up.
This final was a refutation of that opinion.
Fielding a squad made up largely of 23-and-under hopefuls, Brazil not only won, but proved they have the raw roster material to be formidable again in the near term.
Brazil has been given the freedom to say and do many things these past two weeks while it has the world's attention. They've proven they're more than favelas, or the beach, or a basket-case economy. There have been bumps along the way - some big enough to prang you into the ceiling - but they've pulled it off.
That won't mean much to the average Brazilian, the woman or man who paid for this circus. Very little of what happened here will count in the end to them.
But what Neymar & Co. managed might. This was Brazil projecting its best version of itself - its soccer version - into the wider world. It was a reminder, as well as a warning.
Brazilian soccer has suffered a long, embarrassing convalescence. On Saturday night, it climbed out of bed and got back onto its feet.
Neymar celebrates after scoring the winning penalty during the men's final between Brazil and Germany on Saturday.
LAURENCE GRIFFITHS/GETTY IMAGES