It was a battle of the Americas this morning, as Mexico and Brazil met at Wembley stadium to contest the men's soccer gold medal match at the 2012 London Olympics. Brazil were considered one of the favorites throughout the tournament, and compared to Mexico, which featured a cast of almost exclusively Mexico-based players, it appeared the Brazilian stars could not be stopped on their way to winning their first gold medal in the sport. Instead, it was the Mexicans who emerged with their first ever medal in the sport, and it was gold, as they beat Brazil 2-1 on a brace by Santos Laguna striker Oribe Peralta.
The match was bookended by goals, as Peralta took advantage of a mistake by Brazil's defense within the first 30 seconds of the game, and scored at the 29 second mark. Mexico thoroughly outplayed Brazil for the first half hour, when Brazil coach Mano Menezes brought on Hulk to give them more attacking intent. His impact was immediate, and Mexico must have been happy to enter the half with their lead intact.The first 15 minutes into the second half were quite poor by Mexico, but they were able to take the ball off Brazil enough to prevent very many clear shots. After the hour mark, Brazil's pressure abated somewhat and Mexico were able to take advantage of one of the three chances they got in the second half. Chivas' Marco Fabian nearly scored a spectacular goal out of nothing when his bicycle kick bounced off the crossbar, and then Peralta had a goal called off on a clear offside call. But Mexico was able to put more distance between themselves and Brazil in the scoreline, as Fabian sent a free kick into the box that Peralta, completely unmarked, finished easily for the 2-0 lead.
Brazil seemed to lose their momentum after that goal, but Hulk, who was Brazil's best player on the day, refused to quit, scoring a goal in the first minute of second half injury time to give his team late hope. And Brazil could have had an equalizer on the last play of the game, as Oscar, recently signed by Chelsea, headed a good cross wide of the near post and out of play. Brazil woke up, but by that time, it was too late.
Probably the iconic moment of this match, besides the goals, was when Brazilian defender Rafael began arguing with teammate Juan in the middle of the game. Contrary to the disjointed collection of stars and near-stars, Mexico had the teamwork and confidence to not be intimidated by the big names on the other side. And while few would have expected it, Mexico didn't even seem to miss their own star Giovani dos Santos very much. He was sidelined with a hamstring injury, but the concern heading into the tournament that Gio and Fabian would get in each other's way as they battled for supremacy turned out to be no problem. Fabian played most of the tournament out of his favored central midfield role, and when Gio could not continue in the semifinal, Fabian was able to step into the middle and provide the spark Mexico needed.
Another key feature of this team was the three overage players selected. The biggest name was Carlos Salcido, who certainly played well despite also playing out of position, but for much of the tournament Salcido was outshined by Jorge Enriquez, who had another excellent tournament for his country.
Goalkeeper Jose de Jesus Corona had an outstanding tournament, and repaid Mexico coach Luis Fernando Tena's faith in bringing him in as an overage player. What is especially encouraging for Mexico is that Corona is part of a group of top Mexican goalkeepers, and while this gold medal should help him gain an inside track to start for the senior team, it is not yet assured, due to the quality of other keepers like Guillermo Ochoa, Jonathan Orozco and others.
But the star of the tournament has to be Peralta. Playing for his local club at Santos, he's enjoyed a fantastic year and looks to be hitting his peak. Despite having an integral role with this Olympic squad, his emergence in the national team picture is still rather recent, but he's showing a knack for coming up at big moments, both for club and country. Regardless if you like the Mexican national team or not, it's easy to root for a player like Peralta.
So Brazil goes back to the drawing board, while Mexico celebrates. The predictions for their imminent 2014 World Cup success are rolling in, but we'll have to see if this squad makes a huge impact on the senior squad (they almost certainly will) and if they can maintain the same focus and ability they showed in this tournament (the big question). Still, it is a clean sweep for CONCACAF in the 2012 Olympics. Felicidades a Mexico!
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