RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil superstar Neymar struck the winning penalty as the host claimed a first ever Olympic football gold medal Saturday before announcing his intention to step down as captain of the national team.
The Barcelona forward slotted home to jubilant scenes at a packed Maracana as a 5-4 shootout win over Germany, after a 1-1 draw, exacted revenge for a humiliating 7-1 World Cup semifinal defeat to the world champion two years ago.
“This is one of the best things that has happened in my life,” said Neymar, who sank to his knees in tears after scoring from the spot.
However, he also suddenly stepped down as captain after taking on the role in 2014 following Brazil’s disastrous World Cup exit.
“It was an honor to be captain, but from today I am no longer captain,” he told SporTV.
Olympic gold was the only major title to have escaped five-time world champions Brazil in their history.
In front of the biggest crowd of Rio’s Games, including nine-time Jamaican gold medalist Usain Bolt, Neymar’s brilliant free kick handed Brazil a first-half lead. In honor of the retiring sprinting great, Neymar even adopted the “lightning bolt” celebration, whilst chants of “ole, ole, ole, Neymar” rang around Rio’s most iconic arena.
However, Germany captain Max Meyer enjoyed a special celebration of his own as he taunted the raucous 78,000 crowd at the Maracana by kissing the number seven on his shirt when he swept home Jeremy Toljan’s cross just before the hour mark.
The first eight penalties in the shootout were all successful before Brazil goalkeeper Weverton stopped Nils Petersen’s effort to set the stage for Neymar.
And he didn’t disappoint as, with the weight of a nation on his shoulders, he rifled the ball into the top corner.
Brazil Olympic coach Rogerio Micale said Neymar’s decision to leave the captaincy in the hands of new senior coach Tite demonstrated his newfound “maturity.”
“It demonstrates maturity on Neymar’s part. He is a leader in the national team, he is dedicated,” said Micale.
And departing German coach Horst Hrubesch refused to be downhearted with silver on Germany’s first appearance at the Games for 28 years.
“I am smiling all the time because I am proud of what we achieved.”
In stark contrast to the empty seats on show across the Games, even for some of Bolt’s marquee races, there wasn’t a seat to be had at the Maracana — where Germany won the World Cup against Lionel Messi’s Argentina two years ago.
However, it was for the 7-1 mauling in Belo Horizonte five days previously that Brazil was seeking revenge.
None of the players that took to the field that day started Saturday.
Neymar missed the darkest day in Brazil’s football history due to two broken bones in his back suffered during a bruising quarter-final win over Colombia.
Yet, the good fortune that escaped Brazil on home soil two years ago was certainly with them in the first-half as Germany were desperately unlucky to go in behind at the break.
Julian Brandt’s fine curling effort came back off the bar, whilst Sven Bender also hit the woodwork from close range.
In between times, Neymar had opened the scoring via the bar with a sumptuous dipping effort from 25 yards for his third goal of the tournament.
However, Weverton was beaten for the first time in the competition just before the hour mark when Meyer swept home Toljan’s low cross.
Thankfully for Micale’s men they were far more clinical from the spot as Augusto, Marquinhos, Rafinha and Luan all netted to hand Neymar the chance to live up to his billing as the host’s poster boy for the Games. — AFP