August 21, 2016 by Levi Dominic
The boy is a man. And the man is now a legend.
The wait is finally over, the trophy cabinet complete. Neymar has done it. Brazil are back.
The five-time world champions have ended their long wait for Olympic glory, their golden boy hitting the winning penalty to secure the last major title the Selecao were yet to claim.
And he did it against Germany. Where the slump started two years ago with that infamous 7-1.
With Barcelona reluctant to release their star for back-to-back major tournaments this year, Neymar’s decision to participate in the Olympic Games instead of the Copa America has been vindicated. The quest for gold had become an obsession, leaving the Copa America a mere afterthought.
The hosts arrived as outright favourites in Rio, but faltered in Brasilia, slumping to back-to-back goalless draws against South Africa and Iraq.
The knives were out, and they were being jabbed at their captain. The public booed and jeered. They called for women’s team captain ‘Marta’ to take his place.
Neymar was disillusioned, he refused to speak to the press, leading to accusations he was not fit to wear the captain’s armband. He was petulant, out of control, ill-disciplined and overly individualistic.
And Brazil were over reliant on their poster boy for Rio 2016. Asked how he could combat that, Olympic coach Rogerio Micale said he did not want to – insisting he was all too happy to rely on Ney.
A tactical tweak to 4-2-4 and the introduction of Luan changed everything. Suddenly Neymar had options, colleague to run in behind and create space, friends to trade passes with.
Brazil, and Neymar, were transformed. He dazzled Denmark, humiliated Honduras and slayed some personal demons against Colombia.
Brazil hit 12 goals in three games ahead of the final – Neymar grabbing thee for himself. The public were back on side, Brazil’s favourites tag restored.
Around 80,000 expectant fans crammed into the Maracana on Saturday with all the talk ahead of the game looking back at the 7-1, a match Neymar missed due to injury.
His first touch was greeted with a roar of support. He repaid their faith by curling a sublime free-kick into the top corner to give his side a first-half lead.
But he wasn’t done yet. Neither were Germany. Max Meyer hit back on the hour, but Ney stood tall, leading the attack for 120 minutes and twice playing in team-mates who could, should have won it.
Fist Gabigol, then Felipe Anderson and later Luan failed to take their chances. It appeared the script had been written.
Goalkeeper Weverton had largely been a spectator this month, but he arrived with a reputation for saving penalties, having stopped three in the Brazilian first division last season. After eight perfect kicks, Weverton kept out Nils Petersen.
Up stepped Neymar. One kick from history. From immortality. The dream was now within touching distance.
He kissed the ball, calmly placed it on the spot. Two-hundred million leaned in. The run-up felt like an eternity for most, it must have passed by in a flash for Ney.
And just as quickly, it sailed into the back of the net. Neymar turned, fell, wept. “I don’t have the words,” he said.
But he did. And they were poignant. Evoking the words of the great Mario Zagallo, a four-time world champion, Neymar borrowed a catchphrase.
“You will have to swallow me whole,” Neymar said, in no uncertain terms telling his critics they would have to take him as he is.
Who would want him any other way?