With its epicentre at the Maracanã, the guttural roar of release that greeted Brazil’s opener rolled out in all directions across Rio de Janeiro and beyond, making quite the mockery of folk who sniffily claim that, in the cosmic scheme of things, the Olympic men’s football tournament is rather trifling and inconsequential.
They are, of course, entitled to their wrong opinion but at 5.57pm on 20 August it became abundantly clear that for the people of Rio nothing mattered more.
Despite having been sent out to the countryside to cover golf, I figured that with a fair wind I could make the stadium in time for the football final unless everything went hideously wrong. My planning had been meticulous: imagine a strung-out Henry Hill in Goodfellas trying to fit in the preparation of his ziti with meat gravy around the unloading of the guns Jimmy didn’t want while organising the package for Lois to take to Pittsburgh. That was me.
And so it came to pass that due to a random series of ludicrous events involving the South Africa women’s golf team mentor Gary Player, a torrential downpour, a misunderstanding over a courtesy bus and some seriously gridlocked traffic, I failed to make the game. Indeed, as Brazil took their 27th‑minute lead, I was in a hotel room several miles from the Maracanã, hurriedly changing into dry duds and wondering from the deafening crescendo of white noise that had erupted across the city which particular Brazilian it was who had scored.
Unlike the one in my digs, the TV set outside the bodega around the corner actually worked and I was offered the only available plastic yellow chair on the packed pavement by two elderly local gentlemen who it emerged were Rio’s answer to Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show – a satisfactory state of affairs but one that almost certainly explained the previous emptiness of the chair in which my backside found itself happily parked.
Their English was as good as my Portuguese, but having tut-tutted and finger-wagged my original choice of beer and ordered the barman to bring me a considerably more potent one instead, they managed to convey some sense of just how important this final was for them and how desperate they were to win it. Through their repeated and enthusiastic use of such phrases as “chupa meu pau”, “filha da puta”, “sua mae e uma cadela” and “vai te fuder” aimed in the general direction of random young German footballers going about their business on the overhead screen, I was able to piece together what amounted to a sorry football tale.
Despite more than 60 years spent prospecting at various Olympic Games it seemed that no Brazil team had previously struck gold. They had come close: silvers at Los Angeles 1984 and Seoul 1988 were followed by bronze medals at Atlanta 1996 and Beijing 2008 and then another silver in London. So close and yet so far.
The successes of hated rivals such as Argentina and Uruguay served only to exacerbate each spirit-crushing and numbing defeat in a nation where football is the only real sport that matters and the absence of that elusive Olympic “sort-of” under-23 title was the only conspicuously unticked box on an otherwise complete CV. The Olympic football tournament may not matter to most, but it’s a huge deal for them.
At worst hostile, but largely ambivalent towards the 2016 Games foisted upon a city where the vanity of the few appeared to outweigh the needs of the many, such was the obsession of Brazil’s citizens with winning the football tournament that getting enthused about the damned thing was the one obvious concession the good burghers of Rio were prepared to make towards an Olympics most of them wished was being staged somewhere else.
My new friends were certainly excited: a Fluminense and Santos fan putting aside their differences for the greater good of sitting street-side and unleashing a relentless torrent of raucous profanities at their own and various German footballers.
Germany’s equaliser shut them up: a deafening silence descending on the bar as Max Meyer cancelled out Neymar’s free-kick with a low drive past Weverton. It had been a long time coming, Germany having hit the woodwork three times previously, as they threatened a repeat of that 7-1 thrashing the hotel receptionist had assured me the citizens of Rio don’t like to talk about. Extra time came and went, then penalties.
Time slowed down. On tables, plates of food and glasses of drinks went untouched. In ashtrays, cigarettes burnt down to their butts. The locals could barely contain themselves as one by one the players of Brazil and Germany stepped up and did their patriotic duty.
It was always going to be Neymar and when Nils Petersen had his penalty saved and the Brazil striker achieved his destiny, the city erupted once again. A table was upturned, glasses rolled towards the kerb, Statler and Waldorf enjoyed a teary, drunken embrace and a cacophony of car horns honked across the city. Finally ... after 12 unsuccessful attempts, Brazil had achieved their destiny. A toast was raised among all present, then somebody switched over to highlights of the men’s volleyball.
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