RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — With a kiss of the ball and an unforgettable kick, Brazil’s biggest soccer star gave the Olympic host its biggest moment of the games.
Brazil won its first Olympic gold medal in soccer Saturday with a dramatic penalty kick by Neymar to defeat Germany, sending the nation into a frenzy after a 1-1 (5-4 shootout) victory.
Before the decisive shot, Neymar picked up the ball and kissed it before placing it on the penalty spot. With a stutter step and a smooth kick, he calmly sent a shot into the top corner and fell to his knees before being mobbed by his teammates. “That’s it,” Neymar said. “We made history.”
It was a victory that was about more than soccer for a nation that desperately needed something to celebrate. Brazil had been battered by recession, political scandal, health scares over polluted water and the Zika virus and questions over whether it could pull off hosting the Olympics.
All the troubles were forgotten when Neymar’s kick sailed into the net.
“Obviously this tournament had a special meaning for Brazil,” Neymar said. “This is one of the happiest things that have happened to me.”
Jubilant celebrations broke out around Rio, reminiscent of parties following the five World Cup championships won by this soccer-mad nation. Fireworks burst over the stadium, car horns blared and fans sang and tossed beer into the air.
As the team stood atop the medal podium, gold draped around their necks, tears streamed down the faces of fans as all of Maracana Stadium joined in belting out the national anthem.
The victory comes two years after an embarrassing 7-1 home loss to Germany’s senior team in the World Cup semifinals. Brazil was also coming off a demoralizing elimination in the group stage of this year’s Copa America and struggled in early group play in the Olympics.
Germany, playing with a young team that looked nothing like the World Cup-winning squad, made it hard for Brazil, hitting the crossbar three times in the first half. Neymar put Brazil ahead 1-0 with a superb free kick in the 26th minute — and Usain Bolt celebrated along with the raucous crowd. Neymar paid tribute to the fastest man in the world by flashing the Jamaican nine-time gold medalist’s “To the World” pose on the pitch.
Germany tied it with a goal in the 59th minute by captain Maximilian Meyer, and neither team scored again the rest of regulation and two extra periods of play.
After the teams traded four tense goals in the shootout — with both sides lining up arm in arm for each attempt, barely able to watch — Brazilian goalkeeper Weverton dove to his left to stop Nils Petersen’s shot.
The stop set the stage for Neymar, as if scripted.
The greatest soccer player of this generation of Brazil’s stars, Neymar calmly seized this moment.
“I don’t have words to say anything,” Neymar said, sobbing. “I can’t describe my feelings right now. I just want to thank my teammates, my friends and my family, who have been by my side during the most difficult moments. It wasn’t easy. I don’t know what else to say, I’m just really happy.”
After the game, Neymar announced that he didn’t want to be the team’s captain anymore, saying it was an honor but the coach could pick someone else going forward. He did not elaborate.
The men’s soccer tournament attracted most of the attention of Brazilian fans at the Olympics. The Brazilian football federation took the Olympic tournament as seriously as ever, bringing Neymar and many talented youngsters that are expected to be in the main squad in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Countries in Olympic competitions field their under-23 squad, which are different than the older and more experienced national teams that compete at the World Cup.
Brazil had lost three Olympic finals, including four years ago in London, when it was upset by Mexico 2-1 with a team that also included Neymar and other talented players. Brazil won the bronze two times.
“Beloved nation, the gold is ours,” Weverton said, still holding on to the game ball. “This ball is mine, it’s part of history. Will all due respect to everybody who has a beautiful history and tried for a long time, God put this generation in this position to make history and we did.”
Brazil arrived as the main title-favorite but struggled in the beginning, being held to scoreless draws against South Africa and Iraq and becoming in danger of failing to advance past the group stage.
“This restores our self-esteem,” Brazil coach Rogerio Micale said. “We see that not all was lost, our football is still alive. There are some things that need to be fixed, but today we were able to make our people happy.”
The entire nation came to a standstill as people gathered to watch the game, erupting in cheers as Neymar clinched the gold.
“Now the respect is back,” said fan Guilherme Junior. “Now we can aim high again.