RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil won the medal it wanted the most Saturday, claiming its first Olympic gold in soccer and providing a lift to a beleaguered nation in the process.
Neymar scored the clinching goal for Brazil with a nifty penalty kick in a victory that touched off celebrations all across the soccer-obsessed nation. The win boosted the spirits of a country that has been dealing with a recession, political turmoil, health scares and rampant crime — not to mention the lingering effects of a 7-1 rout against Germany in the 2014 World Cup.
“Beloved nation, the gold is ours,” Brazilian goalie Weverton said.
The soccer championship headlined a golden day in the Rio Olympics, featuring a full slate of track and field, the future of boxing on display in a medal bout and a Hall of Fame golfer pulling off an impressive comeback. The U.S. women’s basketball team handily beat Spain 101-72 for a sixth straight title ; the American women have not lost an Olympic contest since 1992.
Brazil’s run to gold in soccer was far from easy, struggling in the first round under the intense pressure of a nation that desperately wanted an Olympic gold. In the final, Neymar not only clinched the win in penalty kicks but scored the team’s lone goal in regulation. Brazil won 1-1 (5-4 shootout).
Neymar did it before an electric crowd that featured nine-time gold medalist Usain Bolt. When Neymar scored his first goal, he emulated Bolt’s “To the World” pose.
The Germany-Brazil soccer featured nearly entirely different rosters from the 2014 World Cup that marked a low point for Brazilian sports. Olympic soccer features under-23 teams while the World Cup is for the top national squad. But the match still had huge significance for Brazil, which had never won gold.
Unlike Neymar’s squad, the U.S. women’s basketball team breezed through the tournament — make that six straight tournaments. It was the final Olympic game for Tamika Catchings, who is retiring after the WNBA season. Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi have also hinted that this might be their Olympic finale, too.
Two talented young boxers who could wind up being the future stars of the sport faced off in the bantamweight gold medal bout. Robeisy Ramirez of Cuba won in a split decision over American Shakur Stevenson in an entertaining match in front of a fired-up, pro-Cuban crowd.
Seven medal events are being held in track and field. At the age of 37, Ruth Beitia of Spain won her first major championship with a gold in high jump. Caster Semenya of South Africa won the Olympic title in the 800 meters with no one close to challenging her. Mo Farah of Britain became the first runner in 40 years to win back-to-back long-distance doubles at the Olympics by taking gold in the men’s 5,000 meters.
And the Americans had another exceptional night at the track. The U.S. 4×400 relay teams, led by Allyson Felix for the women and LaShawn Merritt for the men, won to give the country 31 track and field medals. The U.S. medal haul also included Matthew Centrowitz winning the 1,500-meters — the first American to take gold in the event in more than 100 years.
In women’s volleyball, China rallied from one set down to defeat the upstart Serbians for gold.
China took a 23-22 lead in the fourth set Saturday night when Ting Zhu’s kill sent Maja Ognjenovic to the floor with a hard ball to the face, and the match was over shortly thereafter. Lang Ping raised both arms in the air and Fangxu Yang sprinted over to embrace her. Many more hugs followed.
The 19-25, 25-17, 25-22, 25-23 win means China’s coach Jenny Lang Ping becomes the first person to win volleyball gold as a coach and player. Lang Ping captured an Olympic title with the 1984 Chinese national team in Los Angeles then later spent a four-year stint coaching the Americans.Spain’s Susana Rodriguez and Patricia Rolf of the U.S. made the first all-female referee tandem for a gold-medal match.
Other highlights from Day 15 the Rio de Janeiro Games:
WATER POLO WIN : Serbia and Croatia have a long history — and that now includes a medal match in Olympic water polo. Serbia beat Croatia 11-7 to win the country’s first Olympic gold in men’s water polo.
GOLD IN GOLF : Inbee Park hasn’t won all year on the LPGA. She has been recovering from ligament damage in her thumb and didn’t play in the last two majors. But on Saturday, the seven-time major winner took command with a 5-under 66 and won a gold medal.
TRIATHLON WINNER : Coming into the Rio Games, the U.S. had never won an Olympic triathlon gold medal. Gwen Jorgensen changed that, easily winning over the 2012 gold medalist. Jorgensen was an All-American track athlete and swimmer at the University of Wisconsin and had settled into her first job as an accountant in Milwaukee before deciding to take up triathlon. To win gold, Jorgensen ran 6.2 miles, swam a mile in the ocean and cycled 24 miles in 1 hour, 56 minutes, 16 seconds.
BADMINTON DUEL : Chen Long of China and Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia are considered by many to be the best players of their era in badminton. They faced each other in the gold medal match, and Lee — the world’s No. 1 player — won again.
LOCHTE IS SORRY: American swimmer Ryan Lochte said he over-exaggerated what happened at a Rio de Janeiro gas station and acknowledged it was his “immature behavior” that got him and three teammates into a mess that consumed the final days of the Olympics.
THE BEST WRESTLER?: American Jordan Burroughs’ stunning loss in Friday’s Olympic wrestling tournament re-opened the debate over the world’s best pound-for-pound freestyle competitor. “The Russian Tank” just might be next in line.
Abdulrashid Sadulaev is 20 years old and a two-time world champion. He captured his first Olympic title Saturday at the Rio Games. Sadulaev rolled past Turkey’s Selim Yasar 5-0 for his third consecutive world title and his third gold at the Rio Games.