Germany adds Olympic gold to long history of success
RIO DE JANEIRO -- It is an oft-used phrase in soccer, but there was the proof around their necks as German players stood on the top level of the hastily constructed podium on the field at the Maracana and listened to their anthem play for the second time Friday night.
A generation became golden when it claimed the only prize missing from Germany's trophy case.
"This is definitely a new summit for German women's football," said coach Silvia Neid, via a translator, after her final game in charge.
But it isn't exactly a golden generation. It is, well, another German generation.
Even the member of it born in Budapest, Hungary. In fact, maybe Dzsenifer Marozsan most of all.
In a sport in which Olympic gold is arguably as meaningful as World Cup titles, Germany became just the third country to win both. Nine years after winning the second of back-to-back World Cup championships, Germany defeated Sweden 2-1 to win gold in one of soccer's iconic venues.
The Germans solved the puzzle that flummoxed both the United States, reigning Olympic and World Cup champion, and Brazil, the host that finally had the support of a nation behind it. They scored twice against the Swedish team that had allowed just one goal in 300 minutes in its three most recent games. More specifically, Marozsan scored once by picking out the top corner of the net, and came close enough to a second, a free kick that caromed off the post with such force that a Swedish defender mishit a clearance for an own goal, that Marozsan jokingly awarded herself one and a half goals on the night.
"I was really, really happy to be able to give this to my team, to help the team," Marozsan, 24, said, again through translation. "I'm just happy for our success. And I'm particularly happy about having the gold medal around my neck."
Born in Budapest, with a father who played internationally for Hungary, Marozsan was 14 years old when she first played in the highest level of German women's professional soccer. She won a UEFA Under-17 championship with Germany in 2008 and an Under-20 World Cup in 2010, the same year she debuted for Neid's senior team. She has now appeared more than 60 times for the senior team.
"Technically she is probably the best player of them all," Neid said of the night's star.
Presumably the coach meant just within the context of her team. Then again, maybe not.
Injuries are one of the few things that have slowed Marozsan in a still young career. It is notable that when Germany lost to the United States in the semifinals of the World Cup a year ago, she played just a handful of substitute minutes while dealing with an ankle injury. There was an injury question mark again this time, what the translation described as a muscle injury, but it didn't impact her. She is a midfielder with power and craft, a playmaker who, as she showed Friday, can finish her own chances.
"Jenny was always an extremely good technician, already when she was in the youth teams," Neid said. "She always stood out; she was a dominant player. And she was extremely successful in the youth teams. Her problem was that she had several injuries, but she was very tough."
Yet this isn't a story about a nation's soccer salvation. Marozsan was 13 years old when Neid first coached the German women's national team and 15 when Neid and Germany won their second World Cup, in 2007.
Germany doesn't win with golden generations. It wins with every generation.
It won before Marozsan arrived, and it will win after Neid leaves.
And it wasn't just Marozsan on this night. Germany attacked down the flanks for much of the game, 23-year-old Leonie Maier and 24-year-old Tabea Kemme stretching Sweden to the breaking point before the first goal arrived. The game was scoreless at halftime, but Germany should have taken the lead when Maier raced down the right side in the 25th minute and hit a ball that Swedish keeper Hedvig Lindahl could only parry -- directly to the feet of Anja Mittag. But the most capped player on the German roster failed to finish a chance she would most nights.
Sweden coach Pia Sundhage called Germany the best team in the world after the game. With one-game sample sizes, that's a difficult thing to prove. We're left to go with the result. The United States won the final game of the World Cup a year ago, so it was the best team in the world. Germany won the final game of the Olympics, so it is the best team.
What is undeniable is that the Germans have been among the best teams in the world for a very long time. Generation after generation.
"The way they keep possession and the way they penetrate on the flanks," Sundhage said of the comparison to the American and Brazilian teams Sweden faced here. "And if you try to stop them on the flanks, which I think we were pretty successful with that, then they find another way, combinations centrally. Those are good players, and when they're dispossessed, they know how to defend."
When asked the inevitable question about what this meant for women's football in Germany, if it signaled a "thrust" forward, Neid almost visibly shrugged. She said Germany already had excellent infrastructure, including the best league in the world.
Seven of Germany's starters who now wear gold medals are not yet 26 years old. None of them will be 30 when the next World Cup rolls around. Or the next Olympics.
"Jenny gets better the older she gets," Neid said of Marozsan. "She's 24 years old now, and I think four years from now she's going to be a grenade. I'm going to watch her from the tribune and be happy."
European powers will meet next summer in the continent's championship. Perhaps France will finally find its footing in the later stages of a major tournament. Maybe Sweden will find a way to recapture the magic of the last few rounds in Brazil, although it might have to do so without Sundhage, whose contract is up Dec. 31.
The world will gather again in three years for the World Cup. Perhaps the United States will emerge older and wiser and defend its title. Maybe Japan will find a new crop of talent after missing out on these Olympics.
What we do know is that Germany will be in the mix, not because it now lives through a golden generation.
But because Marozsan and the generation that won gold in Rio are German through and through.