Neymar nails the final penalty kick to win gold

On August 5, 2016, all eyes were on Rio de Janeiro.

Despite all the doomsayers’ diatribes about political corruption, the fears of the zika virus, the filth of Guanabara Bay, and the anemia of the Brazilian economy, the Games went on. And the Games were great!

Anthony Howe's Olympic sun

In the moving opening ceremony, the famed Brazilian love for music and dance were on display. Super model Gisele Bundchen strolled across the field to the tune of The Girl from Ipanema. The honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron was given unexpectedly to Athens marathoner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, whose 2004 Olympic marathon was bizarrely interrupted by a defrocked Irish priest. And the cauldron de Lima lit was stunning, the fire’s light reflected magnificently in a shining, swirling structure of metal places and balls, creating a spectacular golden vision of the sun.

A bright spot for the IOC was highlighting the plight of the global refugee issue by forming an all-refugee team, an excellent idea!

And to be honest, from a sports perspective, if you bring the very best athletes in the world together, the drama of the competition will subsume almost all else (for good and for bad.)

For Brazilians, here were a few of their nation’s most inspirational stories, starting with Neymar’s winning penalty shot that sealed Brazil’s first even Olympic gold in soccer.

Here are a few other amazing stories I covered, particularly from a Asia/Japan perspective:

The Rio Olympics were far from perfect. But those Games a year ago today had its moments, many that will be remembered for decades.

No doubt, more await when we See You in Tokyo!

See you in Tokyo Rio Olympics

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Neymar nails the final penalty kick to win gold
Brazil captain Neymar broke down in tears after scoring the penalty that earned his country’s first ever football gold medal (Photo: Getty Images)

Brazil had so much to be proud of at the 2016 Rio Olympics:

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Weverton celebrates with Neymar
Brazilian goaltender Weverton rushes to celebrate with teammate Neymar.

Neymar knocked in the winning goal, securing Brazil’s first Olympic gold medal in its religion of soccer. But it was Weverton the goalie who arguably won the match for the Seleção, with his lunge to the left and save of Germany’s Nils Petersen’s penalty kick in the last moments of the Olympic finals.

Surprisingly, Weverton wasn’t even on the team five days prior to the start of the 2016 Rio Olympics. How did he get on the team, and find himself in the most intense moment, inside the pressure cooker of Maracanã Stadium, during Brazil’s most important sporting event of their Olympic Games?

To be blunt, Weverton was lucky. Three times, circumstances conspired to change his fate dramatically.

One of the world’s most prestigious football tournaments, the Copa América, is held in South America pitting the best of Latin America, with nations from North America and Asia. Unfortunately, Brazil had been going through a funk, and the team’s performance at Copa América in June was poor – so poor that team manager Dunga got the sack, a little less than 2 months before the start of the Rio Olympics. In a state of uncertainty and flux, Rogério Micale was appointed coach of the Brazilian squad that would assemble for the Olympics. While Dunga did not appear to consider Weverton for his Olympic squad, apparently Micale did.

The second stroke of luck was an injury. Micale had Fernando Prass as his starting goalkeeper. Prass, at the age of 37, was having a fantastic year leading his team, Palmeiras, to the top of the Brazilian first division. On July 25, 11 days before the start of the Rio Olympics, Prass injured his right elbow. He was expected to make it back to the pitch on August 1, but his injury didn’t get better fast enough to satisfy Micale.

The third circumstance that bent the heavens in Weverton’s direction was distance. Micale’s first alternative to Prass was Diego Alves, the goalkeeper for Spanish club Valencia CF. But Alves was not in Brazil, and with precious few days left before the start of the Summer Games, Micale needed someone in Brazil to begin preparations right away. That’s when he decided to place a phone call to the captain and goalkeeper for Atlético Paranaense, a professional football club in Curitiba, Brazil. His name was Weverton, and he was getting off the plane returning from this team’s loss to Sport Recife the night before.

Weverton makes the save
Weverton stops Germany’s penalty kick.

That phone call would drastically change his life. Coach Micale wanted Weverton, who at the age of 28 had never been selected for the national team, to join the Brazilian national team for the Olympics. Not only that, with the start of the Olympics only five days away, Micale wanted Weverton minding the nets as the starter.

How would Weverton Pereira da Silva do? Through the preliminary games, the knockout quarterfinals and semifinals – through five consecutive Olympic matches, Brazil and the newfound goalie did not give up a single goal. It took nearly 60 minutes into Brazil’s sixth match before Weverton gave up a score, a strike hit so sharply by Maximilian Meyer of Germany that no goalie would have had a chance. In other words, Weverton had already paid back the faith Micale had invested in Weverton. But it was at the very end of the finals, on that fateful kick by Petersen, when Micale’s investment paid dividends.

Weverton, the accidental Olympian, saved the day, the match and quite possibly, the Olympics for Brazil.

Neymar nails the final penalty kick to win gold
Brazil captain Neymar broke down in tears after scoring the penalty that earned his country’s first ever football gold medal (Photo: Getty Images)
It wasn’t a 7-1 victory. The universe did not bestow such poetic justice, the redemptive opportunity for Brazil to equal their slaughter at the hands of Germany at the World Cup in 2014. Brazil hosted that World Cup, losing to Germany by 6, and ending that tournament in shame.

On August 20, 2016, the day before the closing of the Rio Olympic Games, Brazil defeated Germany in the soccer finals, on the razor-thin edge of a penalty shootout. Despite the brilliance and success of Brazilian soccer over the decades, Brazil had never won an Olympic championship. On their 13th attempt, Brazil struck gold, and all of Brazil exhaled, and then danced.

After a tense 90 minutes of play that left the two powers tied 1-1, and then an additional 30 minutes of extra time, it came down to penalty kicks. Germany’s Matthias Ginter was up first, and he slotted the ball into the lower right corner, the Brazilian goalie, Weverton, guessing correctly but not able to handle it. The German goalie, Timo Horn guessed correctly on Renato Augusto‘s shot, but the ball zipped into the upper right hand corner of the net. On Germany’s second attempt, Weverton had Serge Gnabry‘s shot lined up, but it slipped under his arm pit and into the net. Marquinhos of Brazil sent his shot into the upper left hand corner of the net to equalize. And on it went, Julian Brandt, then Rafinha, Niklas Sule, and then Luan, their aim, all true.

When Germany’s Nils Petersen stepped up, with penalty kicks tied at 4-4, momentum was hinting at another score from Petersen. But momentum doesn’t last forever. Petersen’s shot went to Weverton’s left, and the Brazilian goalie got his hands out to block it. When the ball fell harmlessly aside, the Maracanã exploded. Everyone watching knew Brazil was on the verge of a magical moment.

BRASIL E ALEMANHA
Weverton saves the match. Foto: LEONARDO BENASSATTO/FUTURA PRESS/FUTURA PRESS/ESTADÃO CONTEÚDO
Up stepped Brazilian sensation Neymar, who had performed superbly during this Olympic run, and in fact scored Brazil’s only goal on a perfect free kick in the first half of the match. Gold and glory for Brazil was his alone to grasp, as billions around the world held their breath.

Neymar nailed it, his knees buckling as he fell to the grass. A flood of tears streamed down his face, tears for so long kept at bay by the repressive weight of a nation. As he lay there on his back, his hands covering his face, there was nothing left for Neymar to give. But to Brazilians, he had given them everything as the stadium erupted in a cathartic fit of joy.

The fears of the zika virus. The pollution of Guanabara Bay. The impeachment of the Brazilian president. The worst economy in decades. The constant news of corruption and crimes, and the concomitant and constant criticism Brazilians endured not only by foreigners but within their own ranks.

At the moment the ball hit the back of the net, Neymar made it all right.