Mexico defies odds to win gold
Mexico entered the men's Olympic soccer tournament hoping for a medal. As it turned out, the color -- and the team's Olympic moment -- was golden.
Oribe Peralta scored goals either side of halftime -- the first coming in the game's opening minute -- and Mexico's back line delivered a superb collective performance to give it a historic 2-1 victory. Hulk pulled a goal back for Brazil in second-half stoppage time, but, although the tournament favorites piled on the pressure late, Mexico hung on to claim the top prize.
Given how the Olympic tournament is panned in some quarters, the impact of such a triumph is open to debate. Some are calling this the greatest triumph in Mexico's soccer history. Without question, winning the gold medal is impressive, especially given that Mexico's best attacking player, Giovani Dos Santos, missed the match with a hamstring injury. It's also worth noting that Saturday's win was achieved entirely with domestic players. But placing such a label on the title would seem to be a stretch, considering that the Olympics are primarily a U-23 tournament.
That said, the victory is another significant step toward El Tri's goal of becoming a world power. The fact is that international success is becoming a habit for Mexico. El Tri prevailed at last year's U-17 World Cup and finished third at U-20 level. The effect winning has on the overall mentality of the program can't be called into question. Granted, Mexico has been unable to get past the second round in the past five World Cups, but it seems only a matter of time until that hurdle is cleared.
As for Brazil, this result represents another Olympic failure. The CBF, the organizing body of Brazilian soccer, made no secret of its desire to claim the only title that has eluded Brazil in its glittering history. The team was loaded with attacking talent, but its defensive frailties -- which were there to see throughout the tournament -- couldn't be overcome.
Precisely what this means for Mano Menezes remains to be seen. It's worth pointing out that Dunga, Menezes' predecessor as national team manager, also failed to win Olympic gold, four years ago in Beijing, and managed to keep his job. For that reason, there is precedent for Menezes to keep his post and prepare for next year's Confederations Cup.
As starts go, the opening minute was the stuff of fantasy for Mexico. A sloppy square pass by Rafael was toe-poked away by Javier Aquino right to the feet of Peralta, who fired his shot just inside the near post of Brazilian goalkeeper Gabriel.
The good news for Brazil was that it had almost 90 minutes to get the goal back, yet it showed a surprising lack of composure in the next half-hour. The team's movement was poor; passes were forced into nonexistent spaces; and Neymar was effectively shackled.
With Mexico looking hyperorganized in defense in the early going, Menezes brought on Hulk for holding midfielder Alex Sandro in the 32nd minute. It was a move that smacked of desperation. Except that it worked. Although Mexico's back line held firm, Brazil looked much more dangerous in attack, with Hulk's dynamic play off the dribble ending in a heavy shot that was well-saved by Jose Corona in the 38th minute. That sparked a spell of near total domination by Brazil, as Marcelo shot wide from inside the box after good work by Oscar and Leandro Damiao.
The arrival of halftime brought no letup in Brazil's attack. A rare transition opportunity for Neymar saw him shoot wide in the 48th minute, and he blazed a shot over the bar 11 minutes later when a loose ball fell to him inside the box.
But, for all of Brazil's territorial advantage, Mexico's defense, superbly led by Hiram Mier and Diego Reyes, remained solid, and El Tri really should have done better with a few clear scoring opportunities. Marco Fabian picked Thiago Silva's pocket in the 64th minute, and, after Gabriel saved his initial effort, his attempted overhead kick slammed off the crossbar. Fabian then headed Jorge Enriquez's flick-on just over the bar.
It was then left to Peralta to double the advantage. The Santos Laguna forward easily evaded the attentions of Hulk in the 75th minute and scored with a thumping header from Fabian's free kick.
The goal turned out to be critical. Hulk finally equalized one minute into stoppage time to set Mexican hearts racing, and the tension rose further when Hulk's cross two minutes later found Oscar completely unmarked in the box. But the Brazilian attacker could only put his header wide, and Mexico was left to celebrate a deserved victory shortly thereafter.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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