This was a very evenly-contested match that was played at approximately 1000 miles per hour. In the early stages, there was very little to choose from between the teams, with Korea possibly having the better of it going forward. Mostly, the game was full of fouls and balls sent forward too soon.
Japan had the first real opportunities, late on in the first half, testing the keeper with a headed shot, and then putting a header over from the resulting corner, but Korea struck first, against the run of play. In the 38th minute, Park Chuyoung, who has played so little this past season for his club team, Arsenal, that he almost was not included in the Korean Olympic squad, collected a long boot upfield, some 35 or 40 yards from the Japanese goal. With no help, he drove at the Japanese defense, eventually collecting the attentions of four players, before juking them all, wrong-footing the Japanese keeper, Shuichi Gonda, and scoring with a near-post daisy cutter. It was a moment of real individual brilliance.
In the 57th minute, South Korea made it two when team captain Koo Jacheol corralled another long ball and quickly took a shot, leaving Gonda with nothing to do but pick the ball out of his net.
Japan had a chance soon after, but after it was grabbed by the keeper, South Korea nearly scored again. In a crazy sequence in the 60th minute, Gonda palmed a shot onto his post, and the rebound was rifled back in only to be blocked by a lunging Japanese defender.
The closest Japan got after that was to have a goal disallowed in the 70th, after a blatant foul on the Korean keeper stopped him from coming to collect a cross, which was duly headed in. Japan’s offense was impotent, with their best offensive player, Yuki Otsu, getting too few touches, and doing too little with them. South Korea, on the other hand, found the perfect time for a little magic.
Almost nothing in this game went as I expected it to. First, I definitely did not expect a goal by the 30-second mark. Rafael, the Brazilian right back who plays his club soccer for Manchester United, dwelt too long and too casually on the ball and had a simple square pass picked off and poked ahead to Mexico’s Oribe Peralta, who took a touch inside, then opened his hips as if to shoot far post, but instead whipped the ball near post, the Brazilian keeper wrong-footed: 1–0 to Mexico with less than a minute gone.
Second, I did not expect what happened next—instead of a spirited Brazilian response, with Neymar and Oscar and Damiao dragging the Mexican defense this way and that, Mexico were just better. The goal didn’t phase them or get them too excited—they simply held the ball, played with patience and intelligence, and controlled the game. Brazil was so second-best that Mano Menezes, the Brazilian coach, looked to his substitutes in the 30th minute! Barring injuries, that may be the earliest sub I have ever seen, but it was the right decision. Hulk, who lost his starting spot for the semifinals, was brought on, and Brazil improved immediately.
Hulk was strong on the ball, and drove at the Mexican defense, creating the first good chances of the game for Brazil. On 38 minutes, Hulk ripped a left-footed shot from outside the box that knuckled severely, drawing a diving save from Jose Corona, and suddenly, it looked as if regular service had been restored. For the rest of the half, Brazil were dominant, and it seemed only a matter of time before the Brazilians got their equalizer.
But yet again, expectations were thwarted. Brazil began the half in the ascendance, but it was Mexico that had the better chances. In the 64th, Peralta, making himself a pest, dispossessed Thiago Silva of AC Milan and rounded the Brazilian keeper, but with the ball bouncing up away from goal, his attempted overhead kick clanged off the crossbar. In the 68th, Mexico had the ball in the net, only for it to be called back for offsides. And in the 72nd, they headed over from a corner.
The game was see-sawing back and forth, with both teams creating opportunities, but in the 75th minute, after something of a phantom foul by Marcelo outside his own box on the left side, the resultant free kick found Peralta wide open for a header. The keeper had no chance, and Mexico led, 2–0. Turns out Peralta’s marker, Hulk, had simply let him run free.
The second goal lifted Mexico and deflated Brazil. Two-goal hero Peralta was withdrawn to wild cheers, and it looked as if Mexico would simply see out the game and win gold for the first time. Brazil, however, still had time to make things interesting. As the clock turned to 90 minutes, a Brazilian counterattack saw Hulk slide the ball beneath Jose Corona: 2–2 and game on. With three minutes of extra time to play, Brazil worked furiously to get into good positions, and the Mexicans, perhaps finally getting nervy, began misplaying passes. In the final seconds, a short cross from the Brazilian right side saw Oscar with a free header from just outside the width of the goal, but he blazed over, and Mexico was the Olympic champion.
After a great tournament, Mexico is a worthy winner. Even without their leading player, Giovani dos Santos, and a team composed almost entirely of Mexico-based players, the Mexicans proved without doubt that they were the best team. Brazil’s stars—Neymar, Leandro Damiao, Oscar, Hulk, and all the rest—were simply no match for the team they faced for the gold medal.
The South Koreans also proved themselves. In an evenly contested affair, they only needed two moments, and they took them both. Japan should be proud of its showing in the tournament, but will be disappointed they were unable to score in the final match.
All in all, the future of world soccer is bright, and that world gets ever flatter, with teams from every corner of the globe showing real talent and drive. We in the U.S. can only hope our men’s team can begin to emulate its all-conquering sister squad, because the Olympic tournament is not to be missed.