RIO DE JANEIRO — He could hear the rise and fall of the crowd in the distance, the sound of 80,000 fans climbing and spreading into the rainy Brazilian evening.
Sergio Robonte stood at a bar outside of Maracana Stadium, where in minutes Brazil would play Germany in the gold-medal soccer match. Here in the shadow of the massive coliseum, Robonte explained this was the moment Brazilians had been waiting for since the Olympic Games were awarded to Rio seven years ago.
“This is our chance to show the world our greatness,” said Robonte, a 34-year-old Rio native who runs his own business. He wore a yellow Brazilian soccer jersey and had his country’s flag draped over his left shoulder like a toga. “I had to come.”
It is hard to overstate the importance of Saturday’s soccer final to Brazilians. Soccer—futebol—is the air Brazilians breathe, the sun in their sports solar system. Brazil has won a record five World Cup titles and the country’s success in the sport is the touchstone point of pride to the entire nation.
From the poor favelas to the tony neighborhoods on the beach, the one common scene you’ll see throughout Rio is little kids kicking around a soccer ball. That ball is the most powerful unifying force in this troubled nation. This is a beautiful thing in Brazil, whose biggest celebrity—athlete or non-athlete—is Neymar, the 24-year-old Barcelona forward who was held out of the Copa America this summer to play as an age exemption in the Olympics, an under-23 tournament.
“Every child in Brazil dreams of playing for our country,” said Bruno Sousa, 32, an engineer in Rio. He, too, was adorned in a yellow Brazilian jersey at the bar. “In our country, soccer is everything. And now we get a chance to get revenge on Germany.”
Indeed, it was the national team’s collapse two years ago against Germany that freighted Sunday’s game with even more importance to these proud Brazilian fans. On July 8, 2014, the Germans administered an epic 7-1 shellacking to the Brazilians in the semifinals of the World Cup, which was played in Brazil.
The two countries hadn’t faced each other since that afternoon, and even though Neymar was the lone player on either of those World Cup teams who started on Saturday, the game offered a delicious shot at redemption for the Brazilians.
There also was the matter of the Brazilians needing something to feel good about. This is a country that has been mocked and bashed around the globe for about two years now. The list of problems here is long: a historic recession, contaminated water, the Zika virus, street crime, political instability, the ever-present smell of sewage, and on and on.
The Brazilians have heard all the verbal jabs, and most will be happy when the rest of the world moves on next week. But Brazil had one chance to punch back: win gold in soccer and definitively show they still could do one thing better than anyone else on the planet.
“Nothing in the Olympics is more important to us than this game,” said Robonte in the bar. “Nothing.”
As the game kicks off pockets of fans are lingering outside the stadium, many watching the action on their phones, riveted. Then it happens: About midway through the first half, Neymar blasts a free kick from 30 yards out into the upper left corner of the goal. It is one of the most gorgeous goals in Olympic history.
The fans outside the stadium are as delirious as the ones inside. They jump and scream and hug and dance the samba. Even stone-faced police officers are suddenly smiling and slapping high-fives. It all looks like a near-religious experience, the way fans raise their arms to the heavens. All the troubles in Rio, for just a few heartbeats, have vaporized into the night.
But then there is despair. Thirteen minutes into the second half, Germany’s Max Meyer slides a point-blank shot past Brazilian goalkeeper Weverton to even the score, the first goal that Brazil has surrendered in the Olympics. At an outdoor cafe near the stadium, wails of “Noooo!” echo through the heavy evening air.