The Gamer: Citius, Altius, Fortius

(Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

On a weekend that saw league football commence in Spain and Italy and witnessed the Premier League in full, unpredictable swing, the football that mattered was played on an entirely different continent. Brazil, to be exact — the spiritual home of the very concept of the beautiful game, where the eyes of the world have been fixated over the past two weeks during the Games of the XXXI Olympiad.

Olympic soccer is generally considered an afterthought in the context of competitive international football, and understandably so, given the age restrictions on Olympic squads and the fact that the Olympics are great because they showcase myriad athletic disciplines that, contrary to soccer, don’t hold the viewing public’s attention for nine months every year.

But a gold medal is a gold medal, and host nation Brazil entered these Summer Olympics having never won one in the athletic discipline that is more national obsession than national sport. Neymar sat out this summer’s Copa America Centenario so he could play in these Games; they represented a chance to make history on home soil, and perhaps right some of the wrongs of Belo Horizonte two years ago.

Well, the Football Gods smiled down upon Brazil in the most nefarious fashion this time around. Their path to Olympic glory — which started with two sputtering, goalless draws in the group stage before accelerating via three convincing wins (and no goals allowed) — came to a head in the gold medal game at the Maracanã on Saturday night. And standing in the Seleção’s way were the Germans.

Unlike the senior side that lost 7-1 to Germany in the World Cup semifinal in 2014, this Brazil under-23 team plays with exuberance and conviction; they’re a side that looks like it can actually keep the ball and would prefer to do so, and ended up barely ceding the majority of possession to a talented German team on Saturday night. They have young footballers of technical quality across their ranks; furthermore, they defend as a team, and do so with an intensity and physicality that brings to mind vintage Brazil sides of the ‘90s and early-2000s.

The teenage attackers Gabriel “Gabigol” Barbosa and Gabriel Jesus are emblematic of this renewed approach for the Seleção. Both are quick and fearless on the ball, ply their trade for top Brazilian clubs and are known quantities to the giants of Europe (Gabriel Jesus has already signed with Manchester City and will join Pep Guardiola’s club in January). Together, the Gabriels appear primed to end the bizarre spell that has seen the Brazilian national team unable to field a striker worth his place in the side over the past several years. But there’s also the more established likes of PSG’s Marquinhos in defense and, further ahead, Barcelona’s Rafael Alcantara (Thiago’s little brother) and Lazio’s Felipe Anderson; indeed, these U23s set the Seleção up well for the future.

Also unlike the team that lost 7-1 in Belo Horizonte two years ago, this incarnation of Brazil had Neymar. A fractured vertebrae in the World Cup quarterfinal versus Columbia meant he was unable to play against Germany then, and the loss of their talisman surely had a role in the Seleção’s toothless capitulation. This time, at the Maracanã, things would be different.

Within an opening 30 minutes that saw a bright Brazil side stake its claim and let it be known that there would be no repeat of the infamous Mineirazo, Neymar put his nation ahead with a stroke of sheer brilliance — his 27th minute free kick from more than 25 yards out curling toward the top-left corner of Timo Horn’s goal, clipping the underside the crossbar and ricocheting into the net. It was a shot for the ages, one of those aesthetically magnificent pieces of football that will long endure. It sent the Maracanã into a frenzy and put Brazil in the driver’s seat.

But Germany would not be discouraged. They’re also a side brimming with talent and potential — loads of top-level Bundesliga footballers who promise to grace their nation’s senior side in the years to come. Hoffenheim’s Niklas Süle, in particular, was a rock at the back, shepherding the German backline while Leverkusen’s Julian Brandt and Arsenal’s Serge Gnabry provided attacking thrust down the wings.

The Germans repeatedly threatened, hitting the woodwork three times in the first half and leaving the Brazilian defense fortunate not to concede. It would be just before the hour mark when their captain, Schalke wunderkind Max Meyer, found himself unmarked in the Brazil penalty area and one-timed a lovely cutback from Süle’s Hoffenheim teammate, the right back Jeremy Toljan, into the bottom left corner of Brazil’s goal. This would be an exceptionally tight affair.

Brazil arguably had the better of the remainder of regulation. Anderson’s inclusion in the 70th minute (coming on for Gabigol) injected greater threat on the counterattack, with the Lazio man showing his pace and quality down the left flank. From there, and on into extra time, the game became a counterpunching affair, with both sides offered a few chances and half-chances. Rafael came on for Gabriel Jesus five minutes into extra time and looked to add an extra body in midfield, though he soon saw the Germans nick one of his passes off his intended receiver and counter rapidly in the 97th minute for a decent opportunity.

In the end, neither side could muster an advantage over the 120 minutes. The Olympic champions would be decided via penalties, and the first four takers for each team slotted their shots away with conviction. The agony of defeat would fall upon the 27-year-old Freiburg striker Nils Petersen, who saw his attempt saved by the Brazilian keeper Weverton.

Brazil’s fifth penalty taker would be Neymar, who strode slowly to the spot from midfield. The prodigy took an agonizingly long time to weigh up his shot — the pressure, even to a neutral onlooker, almost too much to bear. He took two steps, then stutter-stepped his approach to the ball and nailed it into the center-right of the net, sending Horn the wrong way. Brazil were Olympic gold medalists at last.

So much for Olympic soccer being an afterthought; you only had to see the tears to see how much this really meant. The tears of joy on Neymar’s face as he looked up to the heavens, sure — he’s cried those before and will cry them again, being a part of the winning machine that is FC Barcelona. The same, largely, also applies to the tears of his teammates — talented young footballers who have their entire lives and careers in front of them. For me, there was nothing like seeing the tears of the Olympic team’s manager, Rogério Micale — a career youth coach who could not hide his joy as he saw his young side make history, and restore some level of national pride in the process.

Nothing will ever erase the “Sete à Um” from the pages of history, no matter how hard Brazil tries to forget the misery and humiliation of two years ago. But it is just that — history — and furthermore merely one facet of an illustrious footballing continuum that includes five World Cups, eight Copa Americas, four Confederations Cups and an immeasurable contribution to the global game on an aesthetic and cultural level.

They can now also count Olympic gold — won on home soil, at the grand old cathedral of the national game, by a group of young men who represent the very future of the Seleção. That is something to celebrate.

****

Italy Soccer Serie A

Photo: Antonio Calanni/AP

Of course, there was other football of consequence played around the world this weekend, most of it in Europe. Here are some thoughts from the action:

Burnley 0-2 Liverpool: This goes first because I’m a Red who spends much of his time thinking not only about football but about Liverpool, in particular. It’s way too early to get carried away with what this result could mean for Jurgen Klopp’s side, but Liverpool were remarkably poor at Turf Moor against a hardworking side that made life exceptionally difficult for them.

Burnley earned the three points, but you can’t understate just how sloppy Liverpool’s build-up play was — I really can’t remember the last time the Reds seemed so incapable of putting anything together. There was no connection between defense and midfield or midfield and attack, with Jordan Henderson and Roberto Firmino repeatedly giving the ball away cheaply in possession, Daniel Sturridge virtually anonymous save the odd moment and Philippe Coutinho regressing to the guy who tries his damnedest to score from 30 yards out.

Liverpool had a remarkable 80 percent of possession on the day, but I’ll leave my thoughts on that to Jorge Sampaoli. Burnley were up 2-0 by halftime — having taken the lead inside two minutes — and Liverpool had plenty of time to turn the screw and try to get something out of the game. But every half-chance was wasted and for all of the 26 shots that they got off, only five were on target.

Klopp will surely reconsider shunting Sturridge out wide to play Firmino through the middle (though it could work under the right circumstances) and will probably go back to Alberto Moreno at left back after James Milner’s painfully ineffectual performance there — though I doubt Klopp will give up on Milner at fullback in general, nor should he, seeing the success he had at Dortmund with a similarly hardworking, all-purpose footballer in Kevin Großkreutz occupying that role.

But not one player in that Liverpool side should escape criticism for that performance. You have to believe they’ll be much improved at White Hart Lane next week, given both the nature of the opposition and the fact that it couldn’t get much worse. All credit to Sean Dyche’s Burnley side for a stifling performance.

Juventus 2-1 Fiorentina: The biggest thing I took away from Juve’s opening Serie A match of the season on Saturday is just how deep their options will run this season, even without the departed colossus that is Paul Pogba.

The defense was as expected — Gigi Buffon shielded by the back three of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini — but Max Allegri’s five-man midfield had a more squad-oriented look, with Alex Sandro on the left wing (opposite Dani Alves on the right) and a central midfield three of Sami Khedira, Kwadwo Asamoah and Mario Lemina playing behind Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic in attack.

On the bench, however, Allegri had the likes of Miralem Pjanic, Patrice Evra, Mehdi Benatia (on loan from Bayern Munich), Stephan Lichtsteiner, Croatian rookie Marko Pjaca, Simone Zaza, Daniele Rugani and Hernanes at his disposal — not to mention the €90 million man himself, Gonzalo Higuain. Consider that the great Claudio Marchisio and fellow midfielder Stefano Sturaro were unavailable through injury and, even if Hernanes ends up leaving the club as has been reported, Juventus are stacked.

Higuain, of course, came on for Mandzukic and ended up slotting the game-winning goal 10 minutes into his Serie A debut — a tidy finish, hit at an angle inside Fiorentina’s six-yard box, that looked a lot easier than it was. It put the Old Lady in front for good, after Nikola Kalinic had headed a corner past Buffon only five minutes earlier.

Juve could be scary-good this year. They just lost probably their best player and yet, somehow, look a team with no real weaknesses — at least on paper.

Milan 3-2 Torino: Possibly the game of the weekend, and definitely the ending of the weekend. Milan were in control for most of Vicenzo Montella’s debut as manager on Sunday, thanks in large part to the irrepressible Carlos Bacca, who rounded off his hat trick with a penalty that put the hosts up 3-1 in the 62nd minute.

Daniele Baselli made it interesting late on, skipping through the Milan backline far too easily and slotting it past Gianluigi Donnarumma to make it 3-2 in the first minute of stoppage time. Then Gabriel Paletta made it really interesting a couple minutes later, after the Milan defender earned himself a second yellow card for grappling and pulling down Torino striker Andrea Belotti in the box. Torino found themselves with a chance to earn a point out of nowhere and deal a crushing blow to Milan’s confidence at this early stage of the season.

But Donnarumma — the 17-year-old kid who has kept former Real Madrid keeper Diego Lopez out of the Milan side for the past year — had other ideas. He saved Belotti’s penalty, taken with the last kick of the game, and in the process saved Milan both the three points and the embarrassment.

Donnarumma’s penalty stop was even more impressive considering replays showed him initially shifting his weight to the right side of his body, only for him to rapidly spring back over to his left side and jump out to block Belotti’s shot. Torino manager Sinisa Mihajlovic — who was fired as Milan manager in April — could only smile at the whistle, and later joked with the media that he shouldn’t have given the teenage goalkeeper his debut last year.

But Milan appear a more formidable outfit under Montella’s leadership. Bacca guarantees goals at this point and he linked up well with M’Baye Niang, while former Liverpool starlet Suso looked tidy if unspectacular on the right flank and, barring the injury time shenanigans, the defense looked solid.

Don Silvio may be on his way out at the San Siro, but an serious influx of Chinese capital appears on its way in — and that could bode well for the quality of the squad at Montella’s disposal in the near future.

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