Olympic football gold had always eluded Brazil, until Rio 2016 that is, when an inspirational Neymar captained A Seleção to a long-awaited victory over Germany in the final. The Barcelona star sealed the title himself, scoring the winning penalty in the shootout to send a nation wild. “I think we can learn from everything, and if Brazil has yet to win this football gold medal that we’re all dreaming about, then it’s because our time has yet to come,” said Neymar da Silva Santos Junior, better known around the world by his first name, in the run-up to Rio 2016.
Brazil and the quest for Olympic goldThe only nation to have won the FIFA World Cup five times and to have taken part in it 20 times, Brazil has occupied the top spot in the world rankings on many occasions and has reared a whole host of legendary footballers, among them the three-time world champion Pelé. Yet despite all that success and prestige, A Seleção had always found Olympic gold elusive, making do with three silvers (after losing finals to France at Los Angeles 1984, the Soviet Union at Seoul 1988 and Mexico at London 2012) and two bronzes, collected at Atlanta 1996 and Beijing 2008. On home soil and in front of their own fans, however, the Auriverde finally ended their long wait for the one title missing from their long list of honours, a wait that had lasted 120 years. That they were able to do so was due in no small measure to their star player.
A precocious talent Born on 5 February 1992 in the state of Sao Paulo, Neymar attracted attention at an early age with his prodigious dribbling skills, speed of execution, vision, passing and his eye for goal. A Santos youth player from 2003, he broke into the Brazilian club’s youth team in 2009, winning the Copa Libertadores with them in 2011 before moving two years later to Barcelona, where he now forms one third of the feared “MSN” strike force with Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez.
Olympic debutCapped by Brazil at all age levels, Neymar formed part of the Brazil side at London 2012, where he scored three goals in all, including a penalty in the 3-2 quarter-final defeat of Honduras. Brazil fell just short of the gold, however, beaten 2-1 by Mexico in front of an 86,000 crowd at Wembley. Accentuating the positive after that defeat, Neymar said: “It was so special in London. It was my first Games and I was so impressed with the whole thing. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.”
Brazil lost without their guiding starThe following year Neymar won the Confederations Cup with A Seleção and was voted player of the tournament. Tipped to be the star of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil, he lived up to the billing, inspiring the hosts to victory in the group matches against Croatia and Cameroon and converting the winning penalty in the shootout defeat of Chile in the last 16. Then, in the quarter-final against Colombia, he sustained a serious back injury, prompting much anguish across the country. Worse was to follow when Germany beat a Neymar-less Brazil 7-1 in the semi-finals.
Seleção skipper Driving defences to distraction on the domestic and European scenes with his Barça strike partners, Neymar enjoyed a 2015 to remember, picking up Spanish league, UEFA Champions League and Club World Cup winner’s medals, before claiming La Liga again the following season. He was also made his country’s captain and earned selection as one of the three over-age players for the U-23 team that would represent Brazil at the Rio Games.
Soaking up the atmosphere Neymar was so focused on the Olympics that he skipped the Copa America Centenario, held that June in the USA. “I’m picturing myself playing at the Games on home soil,” he said. “It’s a dream come true. I’ve played in the Confederations Cup and the World Cup in Brazil, and all that’s missing for me are the Games. It’s going to make me so happy. The Olympic Games are different because they include all the sports. The whole world, friends and family, come together to watch them. When I was a boy I used to love watching the Games on TV, and I’ve had the honour of achieving this goal very early in my career, before I played in the World Cup.”
A record in RioNeymar and his side did not have the best of starts to their Olympic campaign, recording disappointing goalless draws against South Africa and Iraq in Brasilia. With the support of their fans, the Auriverde finally clicked into gear in their final group match against Denmark, winning 4-0, albeit without the star man finding the back of the net himself. The great player that he is, he then hit top form on the big occasion, putting his side on the road to a 2-0 defeat of Colombia in the quarters with a majestic free-kick. There was more to come in the semi-final against Honduras, with the Barcelona man scoring the fastest goal in Olympic history, after just 14 seconds, and then rounding off an emphatic 6-0 win by converting from the spot.
A nation celebratesPlayed in front of a capacity 63,000 crowd at the Maracana in Rio, the Olympic final saw Brazil take on Germany, with the hosts intent on wiping away memories of their World Cup nightmare against the same opponents in 2014. Neymar put them on course to do just that with another superb free-kick, only for the Germans to equalise in the second half. There was no further scoring in normal time or extra time, which meant that penalties would decide the destination of the gold medal. Both sides converted their first four spot-kicks before Nils Petersen missed Germany’s fifth. Neymar then stepped up to take the most important kick of his life. Seemingly immune to the pressure, he calmly slotted the ball into the back of the net and then fell to his knees in tears. Within seconds he was engulfed by his jubilant team-mates, while the Maracaña and an entire nation went wild with delight. After helping to end his country’s long, long wait for Olympic glory, an emotional Neymar said: “It’s one of the best things that has ever happened to me.”