When the final whistle broke after 120 minutes of airless, after six games in 17 days and at the end of an 11-month season with hardly any caesura, the players of Brazil and Spain collapsed in opposite madness.
For Brazil’s Olympic soccer team, this was an evening that ended with a career-high joy for many of those present. The gold medal was secured by a goal in overtime from the dynamic, groundbreaking Malcom, who plays his football in the Russian Premier League of the Olympic Committee with Zenit Saint Petersburg.
Richarlison, who missed a penalty and took more chances, fell face down near the center circle. A pile of carriages wrapped around her arms and bounced across the lawn like a giant human beach ball. Flags were waved as the crowded Brazilian media released chants and songs.
Torment for Spain’s players. Photo: Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters
Think also of Spain, which is now facing the revving of the European club soccer machine as its own summer dream begins to fade. There is a silver medal for the memories. It was a worthy final as both teams were at their physical limits and Brazil deserved to win, if only for the sheer volume of attacking substitutes hurled by André Jardine.
Nobody cares about men’s Olympic football. Why not just play it on horses or do a swimming lap? It’s all a distraction from the real business of endless club football that no one really remembers. This is often the line at this stage.
Well, don’t mention that to Brazil, which have an ongoing obsession with this competition. Five silver medals for the men’s team ensured a long-awaited joy about the success in 2016 in Rio. With another gold medal, Brazil has more men’s Olympic football medals – nine – than any other nation.
The Olympic final in Rio was held in front of 63,000 spectators in the Maracanã. In Yokohama, the teams were confronted with the well-known spectacle of empty plastic seats. The International Stadium is a huge open concrete shell that’s pleasantly dingy in places, with the expansive views that come from an old-school six-lane running track around the perimeter.
Brazil started in a classic 4-2-3, Spain in a similar form, with Pedri playing a deeper role than last in the center.
When a pleasant breeze came in under the patchwork roof, the game developed into a slow pattern: Spain held the ball, Brazil looked for the break and trusted Richarlison’s impressive mileage.
This Olympic tournament answered some questions about Richarlison – is he any good? (Answer: sometimes); what exactly is he doing? (Answer: stuff) – and left her hanging too. Here, after 33 minutes, the Everton man was the focus of a bizarre interlude. A deep free kick was fired in the Spain area. Unai Simón flew wildly with both knees upside down and eliminated Matheus Cunha.
In any other context it was a violent attack, although Simón as a goalkeeper is of course generally allowed to kick people in the head. Eventually the referee awarded a penalty over the VAR, to Simón’s obvious shock.
Matheus Cunha celebrates after overcoming the impasse. Photo: Stoyan Nenov / Reuters
Richarlison stepped forward, paused, and then spooned the ball into the wide open spaces behind the goal, far enough from the goal that it might have required a PCR test to re-enter the field. But just before the break, Brazil finally took the lead, a goal from Dani Alves on the right. His pullback was allowed to ricochet and be thrown to the ground by Cunha, who stroked the ball in the corner.
Luis de la Fuente sent in Bryan Gil and Carlos Soler at the start of the second half. Gil is a lean, skilled, unpredictable winger who has just signed for Tottenham. Nature heals itself. And it worked for a while when Pedri, playing his 73rd game of the season, started pulling the strings.
Brazil really should have ended the game after 52 minutes. Richarlison found space, but saw his shot hit the crossbar from Simón’s heel.
But Spain soon equalized with a brilliant finish from Mikel Oyarzabal with a cross from Soler. Oyarzabal crouched on the left edge of the box, bent his body and then shot a wonderful volley back into the goal, the ball hit with an audible hiss in the corner.
But it was Malcom’s appearance at the start of extra time that changed the game decisively. Malcom was a late-injured replacement on that roster. He’s a Corinthians boy who moved to Europe at 16, made a name for himself in Bordeaux, played a season in Barcelona and possibly would have perished as another half-remembered talent, another roving weapon hired in European football.
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But he had his moment here. Light and agile, his speed was simply too high for the right side of the Spanish defense. Finally, 12 minutes before the end, he grabbed a nice cross-country pass from Antony and stormed off. Malcom shot hard and deep, the ball oozing into the back corner of the net, again off Simón’s heel. Brazil won gold for the seventh time in these games and will now try to become the first men’s team to become champions three times in a row in Paris.