August 22, 2016 / 2:57 AM / a year ago

Soccer: For Brazil, it was always about football

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - The Rio Games featured 28 sports but, deep down, host nation Brazil only really cared about one of those: football.

Aug 20, 2016; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Brazil forward Neymar celebrates with teammates after defeating Germany in the gold medal soccer game during the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games at Maracana. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Brazil have won every major international title, from the World Cup, which they have claimed five times, to the Copa America, the Confederations Cup, the under-20 and under-17 world championships.

But the Olympic Games tournament has always eluded them, a stain on their record, and a nation that pays little or no attention to sports such as diving, race walking or badminton wanted this gold medal more than any other.

They even brought Neymar, one of three overage players permitted in what is an under 23 tournament, to Rio instead of the more prestigious Copa America after his club Barcelona refused to allow him to play in both competitions.

And Neymar played a key role as Brazil’s long wait ended in the most dramatic fashion possible; on penalties, with the last kick, against Germany, the team that had humiliated them 7-1 in the World Cup semi-final two years before.

“This was really a difficult situation for us,” coach Rogerio Micale said afterwards. “It was the Olympics but we needed to respond to the Brazilian people and we did that, we won.”

Micale, little-known before the Games, was the unlikeliest of heroes. He abandoned his playing career at the age of 23 and has spent nearly all his coaching days with youth teams, far from the public eye.

Yet he succeeded where more illustrious colleagues such as Mario Zagallo, Dunga and Mario Menezes, all coaches of the senior team who took on the Olympic role as well, had failed.

Perhaps not surprisingly amid such high expectations, Brazil began poorly and were booed off the park after 0-0 draws against South Africa and Iraq.

But they found their feet against Denmark and then overcame Colombia in the quarter-finals and hammered Honduras in the semis. Germany, meanwhile, looked their typical selves, scoring 21 goals in five unbeaten matches.

Germany had also never won gold as a unified team -- although communist East Germany won gold in 1976 -- and so the stage was set for mother of all Olympic showdowns 24 hours later.

No one disappointed. The game was as thrilling as it was tense. When the last kick went in, Brazil did what they so wanted to do and the long wait was over.

“This phase has passed,” said Micale. “We can look to the future with more confidence and more pride. Brazilian football is not dead, we can achieve great things in the future.”

Whether the win really does start a revival, or whether it has papered over the cracks in a country where the sport faces multiple challenges, remains to be seen.

Reporting by Andrew Downie; Editing by Brian Homewood

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