RIO DE JANEIRO ― People began to swarm the cafes and bars along Copacabana Beach early in the afternoon Saturday, hours before Brazil’s men’s soccer team would take the field at Rio’s Maracana Stadium for a much-anticipated rematch with Germany in the gold medal match of the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Brazilians don’t usually care about the Olympic soccer tournament. Its meaning pales in comparison to the World Cup, which Brazil has won five times. But Rio on Saturday was different ― Brazil’s iconic yellow jerseys were ubiquitous on Copacabana and elsewhere, and street vendors swarmed the sidewalks to sell replicas to fans making last-second buys ― because this match was different. It was Germany, after all, who handed Brazil the most devastating loss in its proud soccer history at the 2014 World Cup, a 7-1 defeat no one here has forgotten.
Seven-to-one has become a popular expression of grief in Brazil, used at times to explain away a particularly bad day. “Today,” someone might say, “God handed me a 7-1.”
The score regularly finds its way into casual conversations, even those that aren’t about soccer. It borders on cliche to say that the sport acts as a metaphor for Brazil writ large, but sometimes it does.
“Sometimes it feels like the entire country has taken a 7-to-1,” a journalist in Sao Paulo said last week, in an attempt to explain the feelings generated by Brazil’s political and economic crises in the runup to these Olympics.
This match, then, gave Brazil a chance to absolve some of those demons. And in the hours before it began, as liter after liter of Brazilian beer flowed, the joy that came with the chance to exact some revenge was palpable right alongside the fear that something like 7-1 might happen again. Some people said they wouldn’t enjoy a single second of it ― they just wanted it to be over, with Brazil holding a gold medal.
The tension only rose when Germany started fast, sending an early shot off the crossbar and behind the goal. But then Neymar, the crown jewel of Brazilian soccer, struck. His curled free kick caromed off the crossbar and into the net, putting Brazil ahead 1-0, and the streets of Copa burst into celebration.
But no one relaxed. Let’s just end it now, people would say, and when Germany scored early in the second half to make it 1-1, a sense of dread set in thicker than the afternoon clouds that often engulf the Christ the Redeemer statue high above the city.
Brazil, however, countered by dominating possession in the last half hour of the match, and each time a yellow-clad attacker broke open toward the goal, butts left seats and yells of “Vai, Brasil!” ― “Go Brazil!” ― echoed through the streets. But then the chance would end empty ― a scuffed shot once, just wide the next time, a German defender’s last ditch slide to take the ball away from an attacker when it seemed a goal was inevitable ― they’d crash back into their seats.
The bars were so full that people lined the sidewalks to watch the TVs facing the streets. Two women in a closed-for-the-evening salon remained at work, glued to the TV. There was no leaving now, not as the match entered extra time after a tie in regulation. But no one scored in those 30 minutes either, and the match headed to a penalty shootout.
Germany kicked first, and the crowd erupted when Brazilian keeper Weverton guessed the right way and appeared to make the save. But the ball hit the back of the net instead. He did it again on the next one ― went the right way, even got a hand on the ball. But it crept through again.
The tension turned into outright fear when Brazil’s players began the walk up to the spot to take their kick. But each Brazilian scored calmly and easily, and everyone allowed themselves to relax, at least for a few seconds until the next player walked up to take his turn. After four kicks apiece no one had missed. But on Germany’s fifth, Weverton’s guesses finally paid off. Some in the bar saw him save it, many others, heads buried firmly in hands, never did. But the roar of the crowd sent everyone into frenzy, because now their star was up, and all he had to do was score to deliver the gold.
Neymar had missed the Germany match two years ago after suffering a back injury in Brazil’s victory over Colombia. He had faced criticism earlier in the tournament when Brazil failed to score in each of its first two matches, listless results that hardly inspired confidence this moment would ever come. But now he was a hero again, or soon to be anyway, and cheers of “Neymar! Neymar!” rose through the crowd.
He took a few steps, dancing almost, and in that moment you could feel the nerves bursting all across Rio. It’s hard to remember now exactly where he kicked the ball, or which part of the goal it went in, because the moment it did, strangers began to hug strangers, burying their tearful eyes into the shoulders of people they’d never met before. The liters of beer began to move table to table. It didn’t matter if it was yours. It was there, and everyone wanted to share. They poured them like celebratory glasses of champagne, and then asked the waitress for more, and poured those too. Then they broke into cheer: Chants of “Champion! Champion!” filled the air as Neymar led the team atop the podium.
They had waited two years for the chance to beat Germany, to rid themselves of the despair that had engulfed the entire country that night. The gold medal ― it is Brazil’s first in men’s soccer ― won’t totally do that. Defeats in the national sport on home soil aren’t simply forgotten, and the sting of the loss to the Germans in 2014 will never fully go away.
But for one night, at least, 7-1 was history.
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