Rio Olympics 2016: 'Brazil's footballers exorcise demons to lift nation'

By Alistair MagowanBBC Sport in Rio

Brazil will always associate itself with two football tragedies at home, but now it finally has a defining moment it can be proud of.

The 1950 World Cup final defeat by Uruguay in the Maracana, and the crushing 7-1 semi-final loss to Germany in Belo Horizonte at the 2014 World Cup can never be erased, but by winning their first Olympic football gold, the hosts can at least point to a new chapter in their story.

Before the game, fans talked of "revenge" over Germany, but Neymar's winning penalty also made this Brazil's most successful Olympics as they won a sixth gold medal for the first time.

For a Games staged amid continuing social problems, and with relatively few golden moments for the host nation, the deafening noise at the finale was symbolic.

As Neymar sunk to his knees in tears, the 78,000-strong crowd bellowed "o campeao voltou" (the champions are back), a song which has echoed throughout the past fortnight and gave a sense of Brazil's restored confidence after a bruising past few years.

Brazil exorcises its demons

Neymar missed the humiliating loss to Germany two years ago (known as the Mineirazo) after he fractured a vertebrae in the quarter-final win over Colombia, but it hasn't stopped him from being asked what went wrong and if Brazil could ever recover from one of the worst episodes in the team's history.

Both Brazil coach Rogerio Micale and Germany counterpart Horst Hrubesch tried to play down the relevance of the rematch, pointing out there would be no-one on the field who played in the World Cup.

But fans outside the Maracana were unconvinced. "It was a disaster and we want revenge," one said. "Brazilian football has not been the same since."

Many supporters felt Brazil would win easily, but as Germany hit the woodwork twice, then equalised through skipper Max Meyer after Neymar's opener, there seemed a growing anxiety among the crowd that history might repeat itself.

Three previous Olympic final defeats did not help the mood; indeed when players wasted opportunities, the fans let them know of their frustration in no uncertain terms.

So when Neymar walked towards the penalty spot, kept his cool under remarkable pressure and scored to Timo Horn's left, the outpouring of emotion was as deafening as it was heartfelt, as the demons from two years ago were banished.

And there are those who think it can point to a brighter future.

"After the World Cup and what happened against Germany, I think Brazil's self-esteem was damaged," said former international Rai.

"I think the first gold medal can mark the new era for Brazilian football."

World Cup moments: Germany destroy Brazil

Neymar proves point on international stage

Though Neymar was absent in Belo Horizonte, he still felt the pain and has played in these Olympics like a man determined to heal the wounds and prove he could win a first major international title.

This is a player used to winning trophies on a regular basis with Barcelona but, like club-mate Lionel Messi, has had only limited success in international football.

As captain, and one of the over-age players in the under-23 squad, he proved to be perfect leader material, chasing back to help out in defence as much as he kept his cool in front of goal.

His prodigious work-rate led to a goal after just 15 seconds of the semi-final against Honduras, and, in the final, he was cajoling and encouraging his team-mates until the final minute of extra time before he took centre stage.

After a bruising few years from a political and football point of view, Brazilians needed a role model to lead them forward, and the 24-year-old sealed his hero status on a night the country will never forget.

"The only thing on my mind was I had to do this," said Neymar, who stepped down as captain after the game. "I have fulfilled my dream."

Brazil international football player Neymar
Neymar shed tears of joy after scoring Brazil's winning penalty

The sparkle the Rio Games needed

While foreign tourists and media have been worried by petty crime and fears over the Zika virus, the problems facing Brazil's residents have been a lot more serious.

Crippling cuts, political upheaval and an uncertain future have provided a backdrop to the Rio Games, with some locals questioning whether the cost of hosting the Olympics has been worthwhile.

With some tickets costing more than the monthly minimum wage, at times the Games has felt like an event for international tourists, media and the more moneyed residents of Rio.

The attendances in stadiums have certainly reflected that, with sports outside those traditionally favoured in Brazil seeing many rows of empty seats. But on the occasions Brazil have thrived, the supporters have celebrated with fervour, no more so than during the football tournament.

At first, success came from more unexpected sports. When judoka Rafaela Silva won a first gold for the host nation, the screams could be heard around the whole city as locals watching in street bars burst into the street. More golds followed - from boxer Robson Conceicao and pole vaulter Thiago Braz da Silva, whose shock victory made newspaper front pages the following day.

More spontaneous joy followed when Martine Grael and Kahena Kunze won gold in the 49er FX. Friends and family joined them in the water, before the duo were carried off the beach in their boat.

Then the traditional favourites came to the party: Alison Cerutti and Bruno Schmidt won beach volleyball gold at the stunning Copacabana arena and the men's volleyball team did likewise in a raucous Maracazinho.

Could the football team deliver? No gold medal was more important to Brazil, and Neymar was untested in this sort of scenario.

But his penalty ensured that, however the Games are regarded from other points of view, for many Brazilians they can now be considered a success.

That is the power of football in this country.

Brazil international football player Neymar
Neymar's tears of joy soon turned to a smile...


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