Hosts Brazil exorcise Maracana demons as they edge Germany on penalties to seal dramatic men’s soccer gold

Barcelona striker Neymar coverts the winning spot kick as Brazil triumph on penalties after 1-1 draw

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 August, 2016, 7:57am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 August, 2016, 7:53pm

Barcelona superstar Neymar ended some 116 years of hurt and ended Brazil’s Olympic football jinx with a stunning free-kick and the decisive penalty-shootout kick at the Maracana.

Brazil, despite their famous football pedigree, had never won the Olympic tournament, silver medallists three times – including last time in London – and bronze medallists twice.

The famed football stadium was packed to capacity and the 78,000 spectators – Usain Bolt among them – created scarcely believable noise, culminating in celebrations that went on for minutes as Neymar sank to his knees in tears after converting the 10th and final kick of the shoot-out after the game finished 1-1.

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He had given the team the lead with a stunning free-kick in the first half before Germany’s Max Meyer equalised in the second.

After eight perfect penalties in the shootout, Nils Petersen had his saved, leaving Neymar to make the long walk to the spot. Despite the pressure, he sent Timo Horn the wrong way and the crowd into raptures.

“This is one of the best things that have happened in my life,” he said afterwards, sporting a “100 per cent JESUS” headband. “That’s it. Now they’ll [the critics] have to swallow their words.”

Neymar has been in an ongoing war with media and fans at home, feeling they have been over-critical of the team and him in particular after they flopped at the World Cup and Copa America.

The 5-4 penalty win by the under-23 team atoned in small part for the senior team’s humiliating 7-1 defeat in Belo Horizonte two years ago when the hosts were knocked out of their own World Cup.

“God has blessed me. The gold is ours, but it belongs to God,” said keeper Weverton after his penalty save. “I told Neymar that God had given him a second chance. God loves Neymar like he loves all this team.”

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Brazil became only the third team to have won the Olympics, World Cup, their continental trophy and the Confederations Cup after France and rivals Argentina.

And it helped bury some of the ghosts of the famous ‘Maracanazo’, when Brazil were beaten in the final here by Uruguay in 1950.

An elderly man in the crowd was interviewed on the big screen an hour or so before the match. He’d been there. “It’s unforgettable, emotional to be in the World Cup in 1950 and be here today,” he said. “I’m going to clean my soul today and forgot about what happened in 1950.”

He was just one of many going home happy, to say nothing of the millions watching at home.

The fans had started arriving several hours before kick off, almost everyone one in regulation bright yellow top.

Deafening, ear-splitting, stunning – all the cliches used to describe loud sporting crowds were literally true, the crowd partying throughout the first half as their team dominated the ball without looking convincing at the back.

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There was bouncing, dancing, booing and chanting – and that was just the local reporters in the press box. Renato Augusto made a strong tackle and urged the crowd to respond. Neymar took a corner and whipped them up more. Somehow the decibels kept going up.

Germany hit the crossbar twice, through Julian Brandt and Lars Bender – but in between was a magnificent goal from Neymar.

“Ole Ole Ole Olah, Neymar, Neymar,” sang the fans as the Barcelona superstar stepped up 25 metres out on the left side of the penalty area.

After he whipped the ball off the crossbar and past Horn, the stadium’s volume was such that d Christ the Redeemer on his hill above the Brazilian goal might have glanced over to see what the fuss was about.

Neymar – one of Brazil’s three over-23 players – got into the Olympic spirit, celebrating his fourth goal of the tournament with Bolt’s pose as the sprint great looked on. No word if Brazil tried to sign him at the last minute to exploit his pace on the counter.

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Oddly, the crowd was subdued as the second half began, and their team went flat too. Germany got the goal they deserved shortly after kick-off, captain Meyer finishing smartly on the half volley after a cross from Jeremy Toljan on the right wing.

After that, the volume was restored, but the loudest sounds were cries of frustration as Brazil squandered promising opportunities, Felipe Anderson, Neymar, Gabriel Jesus all guilty of dallying, rushing or scuffing shots when presented with chances. Germany almost stole the win on the break but Meyer was halted just short of goal.

The stadium announcer slowly and in great detail explained the concept of extra time and penalties to the Maracana, surely one of the most unnecessary announcements ever broadcast.

The first period was tense and goalless and the creeping realisation dawned that if it went to penalties Germany would likely win – not just because of their shoot-out record but also the weight of fear and expectation on the home side.

Felipe Anderson was put through with a beautiful reverse pass from Neymar as Brazil tried to avoid that fate, but Horn denied him.

Rafael Alcantara was next to have a go with Neymar again providing the assist, but this time a sliding tackle denied Brazil.

Penalties then, and Brazil held their nerve. So did Germany amid tinnitus-inducing whistles and boos every time their men stepped up. The spot-kicks were remarkably assured given the din, before Petersen finally cracked and Neymar made history.