Brazil will get a shot at redemption after its men’s football team thrashed Honduras to set up an Olympic gold medal match against Germany.
Brazilian fans are still reeling from the 7-1 humiliation suffered at the hands of the Germans at the 2014 World Cup, the most devastating defeat in the nation’s history.
But the selecao will finally have the opportunity to play in a final at the iconic Maracana, an honour it was denied just over two years ago.
Brazilian soccer fans are savvy, of course, and they know that beating Germany today won’t erase the 7-1 in a World Cup that mattered far more than this age-restricted one. Each team has only one player from that World Cup, Neymar for Brazil (and he missed the dismantling with a broken bone in his back) and Matthias Ginter for Germany. But winning a long-awaited soccer gold medal would begin to restore Brazilian pride in ways that transcend soccer and extend to the Brazilian culture as a whole.
And, after the women fell at the semifinal stage against Sweden Tuesday, the weight of expectation from 200 million Brazilians now falls firmly on the shoulders of Neymar and teammates.
While hoards of empty seats in venues across the city have become one of the defining images of the Rio 2016 Games, when Brazil’s football team has been playing, men or women, there’s not a spare ticket to be had.
This was why the Brazilian public came, why they were ready to welcome these Olympics against a backdrop of political tension and health fears; to see captains Marta and Neymar, who scored twice in a 6-0 victory Wednesday, standing on the podium with gold around their necks.
“Neymar is a monster,” Brazil coach Rogerio Micale said after the game. “He has a gift of playing football and delights everybody with his talent. He is a gifted football player. He is very happy in the team. The team has embraced him. There is pressure on him but he is living through a positive period, compared to a week ago when there was a lot of pressure on him. I still believe in Brazilian football and when you have a star like Neymar you have to be grateful as he pushes Brazil to a higher level.”
With Marta’s dream of adding Olympic gold to her vast array of accolades coming to an abrupt end Tuesday; it came as a relief that the poster boy of Rio 2016 opened the scoring against Honduras after just 14 seconds – a new Olympic record.
Johnny Palacios dallied in defense, allowing Neymar to steal the ball off his toes before fortuitously finding the back of the net via a deflection off the keeper.
Yet, just as the Maracana exploded with relieved joy, it descended into a nervous hush.
Its captain and talisman was down injured after suffering an awkward fall while scoring and was soon being stretchered off.
The anxious hush didn’t last long, though, as Neymar gingerly made his way back onto the pitch and was soon back to his creative best.
And it was the Barcelona man that orchestrated the second goal, threading the ball through to Gabriel Jesus to slide his shot under the onrushing Luis Lopez and double the hosts lead after 26 minutes.
If there were any remaining nerves inside the Maracana, they were dispelled 10 minutes later as Brazil added another.
It was almost a carbon copy of the second goal with the same two players combining, only this time Gabriel Jesus lifted to ball over Lopez and into the roof of the net.
Despite his tender age of 19, Pep Guardiola’s latest signing is already living up to his reported $37 million transfer fee.
Brazil offered the Honduran defense some respite until half time but five minutes into the second period Marquinhos made it four.
More haphazard defending in the Honduras box allowed the PSG defender to prod the ball home from close range at the second attempt.
It was a confirmed rout 10 minutes from the end when Luan turned home substitute Felipe Anderson’s cross inside the six yard box before Neymar ensured his goals book-ended the result with a penalty in injury time.
In the day’s other semifinal, Germany comfortably beat Nigeria 2-0 thanks to goals from Lukas Klostermann and Nils Petersen.
The last time Brazil met Germany, it endured the most humiliating defeat in its history. Today offers the chance to exorcise the most heinous of demons.
Simply put, Brazil is tired as a nation of taking it on the chin. It’s tired of hearing foreigners take shots at Brazil’s economy, at the Zika virus, at the organization of these Olympics, at the lack of safety here in Rio. It’s tired of hearing jokes about 7-1, too.
Brazil wants to have faith in its futebol again, and that starts today.
Although neither side have won the Olympic gold, communist East Germany won it in 1976, that is largely irrelevant to Germany but of huge importance to Brazil and they have gone all out to break their gold medal hoodoo.
While, Brazil called up Neymar, arguably their only world-class player, as well as a host of their top performers that includes Jesus, Gabriel Barbosa, the 19-year old striker who goes by the nickname Gabigol; and Paris St-Germain defender Marquinhos.
Brazilian sides were happy to let their players miss league duty to play in the Olympics because they are so desperate to win that one elusive title.
German sides, meanwhile, were reluctant to let their top stars prioritize the Olympics over the Bundesliga and clubs are not obliged to release them.
They came to Brazil with no players from the country’s dominant club Bayern Munich and only four from the other three clubs that finished in the top four of last year’s Bundesliga. Their three over-age players have just 26 full caps between them, while Brazil’s three have 81.
As if those advantages were not enough, Brazil will have home advantage.
That made little difference in 2014 but Brazil hope that the Maracana is more intimidating than the Mineirao in Belo Horizonte and that the young German players are easier to ruffle than their older peers were two years ago.
“The fans help us,” said Gabriel Jesus after 52,000 supporters roared them to victory over Honduras. “It makes a difference. I am sure they will help us even more on Saturday (today).”