RIO DE JANEIRO – Host nation Brazil — the most successful country in soccer history — finally claimed its first-ever Olympic gold medal in the sport after beating Germany 5-4 on penalties following a 1-1 draw in Saturday’s men’s final at the Rio Games.
Facing the country that humiliated it 7-1 on home soil in the semifinals of the World Cup two years ago, Brazil took a 26th-minute lead through star player Neymar from a spectacular free kick that sent a packed Maracana Stadium crowd into frenzied celebrations.
But Brazil conceded its first goal in six games at the Rio Olympics when Germany’s Maximilian Meyer equalized in the 59th minute, and neither side could score again as a tense encounter went all the way to a penalty shootout.
Brazil goalkeeper Weverton saved from Nils Petersen with Germany’s fifth spot kick to hand Brazil match point, and captain Neymar stepped up to convert it and hand his country the gold medal it craved more than any other.
“The only thing on my mind was ‘I have to do this,’ ” said Barcelona forward Neymar, who missed the World Cup semifinal drubbing by Germany after suffering an injury in the previous game.
“I can’t begin to describe my feelings. I have fulfilled my dream, and to do it in my home country makes me very proud.”
Brazil has won the World Cup five times — more than any other nation — but incredibly had never won an Olympic gold medal going into the Rio 2016 tournament.
Brazil started slowly with goalless draws against minnows South Africa and Iraq, but the team grew into the competition as it went on and headed into the final on the back of a 6-0 semifinal thrashing of Honduras.
“This will give Brazilian people pride and confidence in their national team,” said Brazil coach Rogerio Micale, who was parachuted into the job when predecessor Dunga was fired in June.
“We knew that there was a huge responsibility on the shoulders of the Olympic team. After all, football is the No. 1 sport in Brazil. But this phase has passed and now we can look toward the future with more confidence. Brazilian football is not dead.”
Both teams dispatched their first four penalties in a shootout of unbearable tension, but Weverton, who was only called up to the squad when first choice Fernando Prass pulled out with an elbow injury, dived low to foil Petersen and give Brazil the advantage.
“We know that Neymar is a reference for Brazilian football,” said Micale. “But just as Neymar was brave in scoring the fifth penalty in the shootout, Weverton made a spectacular save. We knew when we called him up that he might be called on to do that, and he didn’t let us down.”
Julian Brandt almost silenced the crowd when he curled a shot onto the Brazilian crossbar in the 11th minute, but Neymar gave the home side the lead midway through the first half with a typical moment of magic.
The 24-year-old dusted himself down after being fouled by Matthias Ginter on the edge of the box, then curled his free kick past German goalkeeper Timo Horn to ignite a deafening roar around the Maracana.
“This is one of the best things that has ever happened to me,” said Neymar. “Now the critics will have to take back everything they said about me.”
Sven Bender then hit the Brazilian woodwork again with a header, but the Germans drew level early in the second half when right back Jeremy Toljan raided down the wing and squared the ball to Meyer, who swept it into the corner of the net.
A lively game then descended into a tense battle of wills for the rest of the 90 minutes, and extra time failed to produce any clear-cut chances as the game went to a penalty shootout.
“I told Petersen, ‘don’t worry, that’s life,'” said Germany coach Horst Hrubesch. “The important thing is that you take responsibility and are convinced in your approach when you take the penalty. And from there, it’s a 50-50 chance. So no complaints whatsoever.
“Do you see me crying? I’m smiling all the time because I’m proud of what we have achieved. We played a fantastic tournament and the players recognized that when we got back to the locker room.”
Earlier in the day, Nigeria beat Honduras 3-2 to win the bronze medal.