During events at the Rio Olympics, when Argentina were in action, the locals enjoyed themselves by counting up to 23 – rubbing in the fact that it’s been 23 years since the Argentine football team won a senior title.
The fans’ action was both an acknowledgement of the primacy of football in Brazilian sporting culture and, in a backhanded way, an admission that the Olympic gold medal is hardly overflowing in relevance. In those 23 years, Argentina have twice won the football tournament.
But coherence, as they say, is the last refuge of the unimaginative. No one in the Maracana stadium on Saturday thought for a moment that the gold medal was anything less than a matter of life and death. A gripping game ebbed and flowed in an intense, passionate atmosphere which ended with the deafening chant that the champion was back.
Brazil, at last, have claimed the only title they were lacking.
The win is ready-made for epic headlines. With Christ the Redeemer looking down, Brazil redeemed the two great defeats of their past: Against Uruguay in the final of the 1950 World Cup in the Maracana, and the astonishing 7-1 semifinal capitulation to the Germans in 2014. These same Germans who were now vanquished as the country of football flexed its muscles.
Except, of course, that these were not the same Germans -just an under-23 side in a competition undermined by the fact that clubs no longer have any obligation to release their players.
Moreover, there is a considerable difference between a 7-1 defeat and a win by virtue of a penalty shootout.
Brazilian football, though, needed an ego boost and it has received one. And there are plenty of positives than can be carried away from the competition.
After the dreadful first two games, coach Rogerio Micale corrected his side, picking four front players but still managing to keep the team compact. The way his young players dealt with the pressure of the occasion was also impressive; conceding a goal for the first time in the competition just prior to the hour mark did not lead to a panic attack. And the excellence of their penalties in the shootout paid tribute to the way Micale’s men kept their nerve.
One of them was drilled home immaculately by centre-back Marquinhos, a fine player who seems set to be the long term captain of the national team and possibly even in the short term since Neymar has declared that he no longer wants the job.
All roads, of course, lead to Neymar. The Hollywood script had to end with the big individual moment. He had given Brazil the lead with a magisterially struck free kick, right into the top corner. The corner, as is said in Brazil, where the owl sleeps.
It brought the game to life. Germany hit the woodwork three times and forced a fine save from Weverton. But if the Germans had the clearer chances at this stage, then Brazil had more of the play. And if Brazil’s collective play was massive improvement on their displays at the start of the campaign, then so was the German defending.
How did this team concede five times against Mexico and South Korea? There were times when the Germans appeared on the verge of being overrun – every time they found enough defensive pace and timing in the tackle to halt the progress of the hosts.
In constant contact with the ball, Neymar was a mixed bag. There were moments when he snatched and picked the wrong option, and others when he split the German defence with superbly angled through balls. Which Neymar would step up for the penalty shootout?
If Brazil’s No. 10 was a predictable candidate for the hero role, the same could hardly be said of goalkeeper Weverton. A last minute inclusion in the squad, he is an unglamorous club player who had often looked a little nervy in the early games. But he was formidable in the shootout, consistently guessing the right way, and he was rewarded when he plunged left to save from Nils Petersen.
And so the chance to win gold fell to Neymar. Weverton could not bear to watch. But the noise of the crowd told him that Brazil had won.
Neymar had struck unerringly once more into the corner where the owl sleeps — ensuring that no one was going to get an early night in Rio.