Was Brazil vindicated with its Rio 2016 football gold?
The famous stadium erupted in a very different emotion on Saturday night as the agony of the 2014 World Cup was exorcised
For all the moments of Olympic glory Rio de Janeiro witnessed over the past month, it wasn’t until the penultimate evening of sport’s greatest jamboree that Brazil truly embraced the event. It wasn’t until Neymar stroked home the winning penalty to clinch gold medals for the Selecao that the host nation held the Olympic rings to its heart.
Indeed, Brazil’s penalty shootout victory over Germany in the gold medal match meant more than any Olympic football match before. The Olympics are seen as a second-tier competition by football-minded folks, but Neymar’s tears at full-time illustrated the significance of Brazil’s win, becoming the first nation to win every international honor in the game.
This was about more than just completing the set, though. This was about making amends for the cultural and sporting pain inflicted on Brazil over the past two years. By winning the gold medal wanted more than any other, the hosts were given their shimmering moment of triumph. Against the backdrop of nationwide protests, societal uprising and all the rest, they had their escapism.
Of course, this certainly doesn’t vindicate all the issues that came with Brazil’s hosting of this summer’s Olympics and it doesn’t make up for what happened at the World Cup two years ago. The 7-1 humiliation at the hands of Germany in the semi-final broke the spirit of the country, with the Maracana their torture chamber.
The famous stadium erupted in a very different emotion on Saturday night as the agony of the 2014 World Cup was exorcised, at least if you were to believe the tone of the reaction to the gold medal win. “Finally, a golden ray,” explained the front page of one Brazilian newspaper the next morning, but just how bright is the outlook for the country’s national team going forward?
The glimmer of the gold medal won by the Selecao masks the true state of Brazilian football. The national game is in crisis and that has manifested itself in the fortunes - or misfortunes - of the team that carries the hefty hopes of a nation. The national team’s early exit from the Copa America earlier this summer was a truer gauge of where Brazilian football is right now - well adrift of the sport’s top tier.
That is down to a number of factors. Brazil have gone through six managers since their last World Cup triumph 14 years ago, with the national federation also enduring political turmoil of late. Jose Maria Marin - head of the CBF - was even indicted along with nine others as part of a FBI crackdown on corruption at FIFA.
However, their problems are more fundamental than anything that can be fixed in management. Brazil simply isn’t producing the world-class players they did in decades gone by. Neymar is of course the exception, but the poster-boy of the Selecao plays with such expected weighted on his young shoulders because he is all alone on the elite plinth.
While Ronaldo had the likes of Rivaldo, Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldinho and Kaka to back him up at the 2002 World Cup, Neymar has to make do with teammates of a standard well below his. He can’t do it all on his own, although that doesn’t stop Brazil expecting that he do so anyway.
Crumbling infrastructure and declining investment has stunted the growth of the Brazilian game in recent years, with the Selecao’s embarrassment at the World Cup two years ago still the defining indictment of the country’s footballing health. It will take more than winning the Olympics to nurse Brazil back to finest fettle.
However, Brazilian football needs to get its swagger back and they need wins to do that, regardless of what competition they come in. In recent years the Selecao - the so-called team of the people - have betrayed their own and so they must rebuild that trust again. The gold medal won at the Maracana - the scene of the country’s two greatest footballing indignities - will help in that regard.
But it must be considered nothing more than an ego boost. Rio can be forgiven in celebrating Saturday’s win so exuberantly, yet when the ticker-tape settles sober discussion over how to truly fix things must resume. Brazil might have won the gold medal, but this is far from a golden generation.