With a surprising 2-1 victory over Brazil on Saturday at Wembley Stadium, Mexico captured gold in the tournament, winning an Olympic soccer medal for the first time. Just as important, the big win came over perhaps the world’s preeminent soccer power, a Brazilian squad that came to London intending to send a message before the 2014 World Cup.
“The game is 11-on-11, there’s one ball, players with two legs, and two arms. Why can’t we win over those players?” said Diego Reyes, at 19, the youngest player on the Mexican squad.
When it was over and Brazil’s desperate last-minute flurry fell short, Neymar, a once-in-a-generation talent, sat in silence on the pitch, his arms resting on his knees, trying to figure out how the Brazilian powerhouse could be dismantled so easily by such a young, inexperienced team.
The tone was set early, as Mexico made clear it wouldn’t be bullied around Wembley. Fans were still finding their seats when Mexico stole Brazil’s badly played cross-field pass. Oribe Peralta pounced, knocking in the earliest goal ever scored in an Olympic final.
Brazil was stunned and forced to change its game plan just 29 seconds into the match.
“We had 89-plus minutes to turn the match around,” Brazilian Coach Mario Menezes said, “but we didn’t.”
Brazil couldn’t find a rhythm and its passes couldn’t find their target. Peralta added a second goal in the 75th minute, coming off a free kick. He streaked across the field and put a firm header past Brazil goalkeeper Gabriel.
“I dreamed about this moment,” said Peralta, whose four Olympic goals were third-most in the tournament. “It is one of those things you don't get to live every day.”
In the second half, as desperation crept up on the Brazilian squad, Mexico had at least a couple of opportunities to add to its lead. In the 63rd minute, Mexico stole the ball and charged toward the goal, but Marco Fabian’s bicycle kick bounced high off the crossbar. Five minutes later, Mexico missed another chance when a Peralta goal was nullified by an offside call.
Brazil was credited with 19 shots, including four shots on goal, but struggled to challenge Mexican goalkeeper Jose Corona. Brazil finally got on the scoreboard in the first minute of injury time on a goal by Hulkand had a chance to tie the score. But a desperate header flew above the crossbar in the final minute.
“Yet again we came close but didn’t quite get it,” Menezes said. “I’m forced to conclude that we’re missing something in our under-23 structure.”
The Olympic tournament provided a benchmark of sorts for both programs. The Brazilians have won just about every honor and trophy the soccer world has to offer, but Olympic gold had eluded them. So they brought to London their national coach and most of their top eligible players, many of whom are expected to be on the World Cup team in two years.
Pegged as a favorite here by soccer observers, Brazil instead had to settle for a third soccer silver. It also had reached the Olympic final in 1984 and ’88.
“What we have to do is somehow get through this bad moment,” said Thiago Silva, a veteran appearing in his second Olympics for Brazil. “Life doesn’t end here.”
The Mexican team, which allowed just four goals in six Olympic matches, was younger and had far less experience on the international stage. Still, it was easy for them to put Saturday’s win in proper perspective: It instantly became perhaps Mexico’s greatest soccer victory.
Said midfielder Jorge Enriquez:“This is a historic moment for the country.”
Said Fabian: “We just entered the history books of Mexican sport.”
Said Giovani dos Santos: “Today we showed everyone that we are ready to win important competitions.”
The future looks bright for the Mexican team. In recent years, the country’s young talent has captured two under-17 World Cups and their young Olympic stars showed Saturday they shouldn’t be considered a pushover at the 2014 World Cup.
“Our youngsters look towards the future more optimistically,” Tena said. “They have left behind the old complexes. They look towards the future like conquistadors.”