Brazil finally collected gold in men’s Olympic football on Saturday in front a capacity crowd of 78,000, somewhat of a rarity in these games. Neymar’s opening goal was cancelled out by Schalke midfielder Max Meyer for the game to go to a dreaded penalty shootout. The Brazilian demigod then scored the winning penalty in a story that could have been written for Hollywood.
After the game, Neymar exclaimed, “It is one the happiest things that happened in my life.” Meanwhile, ‘keeper Weverton, who had only let in one goal all tournament, added, “The gold is ours, but it belongs to God, God loves Neymar like he loves all this team.”
The most successful nation in World Cup history, Brazil have not just won five titles but also hold the record for most victories, most games played, highest goal difference, most points and least losses. They’re also the only team to have qualified for every World Cup, won it on four different continents, and won the Copa America in it’s various guises eight times. And so why did winning the Olympic gold mean so much to such a successful nation?
Brazil’s courting of the Olympic gold is a complicated affair. It’s the only ‘major’ tournament that has alluded them, becoming a thorn in their side over the years. The surprise loss in the final of London’s 2012 Olympics to Mexico was a bitter pill to swallow, and they were desperate to make up for that and complete their trophy cabinet.
“We knew about the pressure from the beginning. What interests us culturally is the gold medal, because we haven’t won it yet” said Brazil’s under-23 manager Rogerio Micale before the final.
With such a successful team, most would be surprised to find out that Brazil is a nation that, to some extent, judges itself by its failures. The defeat on home soil to neighbours Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final is ingrained in the psyche of its people. The silence that engulfed the Maracana after the final whistle was deafening. The ‘Maracanazo’ as it became known in Uruguay’s Spanish, the Brazilian’s unable to name it in their native Portuguese, led to a nation in mourning. Ary Barroso, a famous journalist present at the game, retired, some fans took their own lives, and the players were, particularly those who were black, demonised. Goalkeeper Barbosa took the brunt of the abuse. Voted by journalists as the best keeper of the tournament, he only played one more international, bearing the burden for the rest of his life. Years later, a woman pointed to him and said to her son that he was “the man who made all Brazil cry.”
Fast forward 64 years and the barely healed wounds from 1950 were torn open yet again. The humiliation in the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup dealt by the Germans in the Mineirao equalled their biggest ever defeat – curiously bogey team Uruguay were the other side – and acquired the unwelcome record of the largest World Cup semi-final defeat in history. The shame felt by Brazil echoed in the game’s nickname; the ’Mineirazo’ drew comparisons to that fateful night in 1950.
Although not as vilified as Barbosa, Brazil striker Fred took a large part of the blame. A player that relies so much on confidence, respect and an arm around his shoulder, he looked forlorn from the off. He scored only once in six games, managing just five shots on target in the process. The embarrassing defeat to Germany saw the home crowd at the Mineirao boo him every time he touched the ball. With Fred’s confidence knocked, he didn’t make a single tackle, interception, cross or run, with most of his touches coming from Brazil’s eight kick-offs. He retired from international football after that defeat, only to retract it a few months later, but resigned to never being called up again.
The Olympics then became an opportunity to right these wrongs. A chance for victory in a major tournament on home soil, a chance to reverse the feeling felt in the Maracana back in 1950. This though was a dream. A pole held by Brazilian media agency Globo asked it’s readers whether victory in the Olympic final would make amends for the shocking defeat to Germany just two years earlier. Only 30% of respondents said that it would.
There was, however, a definite feeling that Brazil were in doldrums; this has at least been temporarily lifted. This tournament has come at the perfect time for Brazilian football after a disappointing Copa America and a tough start to their World Cup qualification.
“It’s a rescue of our self-esteem. We saw that all is not lost. Our football is alive, you need to [be a] hit, but we can make our people a little happy on this day,” said Micale after the game.
Winning the gold in the Olympics is by no means a barometer of how successful your senior team will be in the near future. No winners of the gold since Italy back in 1936 have gone on to win the World Cup within the following 2 tournaments, and only Argentina in the past 50 years have followed winning the Olympics with a World Cup final – 2008 and 2014 respectively.
So what can be taken from the tournament?
Brazil have, to some extent, laid the ghost of Mineirazo to rest. The nation will always remember that night, but they can at least forget it for a while. Micale was quick to point out that not a single member of the Olympic squad was involved in that fateful night and so only time will tell if those in the senior team can put it behind them.
Since the Mineirazo, Brazil have been scraping around for a partner for Neymar. They’ve worked their way through Diego Tardelli, Ricardo Oliveira, Ricardo Goulart, Roberto Firmino and Jonas without finding any of them capable of cementing themselves in the spot. The Olympics have given chances for young and talented Gabriel Barbosa, Gabriel Jesus and Luan to play alongside Neymar and stake their claim for inclusion in the senior squad. They’ve all had stand out performances, but Luan has shown a telepathic understanding with the superstar which he’ll be hoping pushes him up the pecking order.
The front four used by Brazil U-23 manager Rogerio Micale has been the revelation of the tournament. Playing attacking, fast, creative football, they’ve been a handful, playing the kind of football that Brazilians and neutrals alike are desperate to see. Whether Brazil senior squad manager Tite, normally pragmatic and cautious with his tactics, will take note is yet to be seen, but it’s certainly possible to play all four talents in the same team having built up a real understanding between each other.
So it won’t make up for the humiliation of the 2014 World Cup semi-final, or the national hysteria surrounding the 1950 World Cup final loss, but it may give the senior squad some respite, and probably some self-belief.