Brazil, the holders, will face Spain for the men’s football Olympic gold medal on Saturday after these heavyweight nations of South American and European football saw off the best of Central America and Asia in Tuesday’s semi-finals.
The progress of a strong Spanish side meant heartbreak for the hosts, Japan, beaten by a stunning Marco Asensio goal late in extra-time.
There were 114 goalless minutes on the clock at that stage, and Asensio, with an elegant turn onto his favoured left foot and a curling finish, brought to an end a long day of tense and sometimes attritional duelling.
Brazil and Mexico had earlier cancelled one another through 90 minutes and then extra time without scoring in Kashima, Brazil edging that tie 4-1 on penalties.
Spain, including six of the players who lost last month’s European Championship semi-final in a shoot-out to Italy, at least spared themselves the agony of another lottery from 12 metres and believe they deserve their crack at claiming the top step of the podium.
Japan had weathered some intense pressure towards the end of normal time in Saitama; Spain had most of the possession, and they had been galvanised by Asensio’s introduction as a second half substitute.
But the disappointment for Japan was intense. Captain Maya Yoshida lay flat out on the pitch at the end. On the bench, Takefusa Kubo looked stunned. The winger has been a star of the Olympic run, and was exhausted by the time he was withdrawn, with extra time beckoning. Kubo, a Real Madrid player - though he is usually out on loan - could have warned of the dangers of allowing Madrid’s Asensio to pirouette onto that marvellous left foot.
His was a goal worth waiting for. The wait had been long. This Olympics has not been short of them overall, with some thrilling see-saw matches such as the seven-goal South Africa-France game, the five-goal Saudi Arabia-Germany meeting and some emphatic scorelines in the group phase.
The quarter-finals then gave us Spain 5, Ivory Coast 2, after extra time, and South Korea and Mexico serving up nine goals. But the semis is where tension really rises, even without spectators in the stadiums, and there were symptoms of risk-avoidance.
In the end, experience told. Asensio is only 25 but has two Liga titles and two Champions League wins to his name. He also has points to make after two years where injury and inconsistent form diminished his status both at Madrid and in the senior Spain squad, which did not include him at the Euros.
As for Brazil, they have, wearing the skipper’s armband in Japan, the most worldly of contemporary footballers. Dani Alves won his first senior silverware in 2002, before some of the players taking part at the Games were born. The regulation that allows each Olympic squad three footballers over 24 means the likes of Alves, who accumulated 43 club trophies with Barcelona, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and others, and Asensio can impose their sense of hierarchy.
It counted on Tuesday, Asensio smoothing Spain’s path to the Yokohama final, Dani Alves giving Brazil a lead in the penalty shoot-out that seemed to crush Mexico’s confidence.
Both finalists must now combat fatigue. Brazil toiled at times against Mexico and the longer the sides stayed on level teams, with Richarlison heading against the post late in normal time, the more the gold medal holders were made anxious. After all, at the London 2012 Games, Mexico beat Brazil in the final; in senior regional tournaments, they have a modern habit of disrupting the progress of the more celebrated football nation.
More than that, this Mexico team had until Tuesday festooned the competition with goals - four against France and three against South Africa in the group phase; six in that wild quarter-final against South Korea.
In the end it came down to relative coolness in a shoot-out, several generations of Brazilian talent up against the veteran Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. The 36-year-old has a sound reputation facing spot-kicks. Then again, Dani Alves, 38, has an impeccable reputation facing pressure. Having converted the first penalty he was a picture of focussed ambition, rallying his younger team-mates when his goalkeeper, Santos, saved the first Mexican penalty.
The lead in the shoot-out grew to 3-0 after Arsenal’s Gabriel Martinelli converted, Johan Vasquez hit the post with Mexico’s second spot-kick and Bruno Guimaraes scored for the reigning champions. Reinier, the teenager who is half Dani Alves’ age, confirmed Brazil’s place in the final by completing a flawless set of spot-kicks.
Mexico and Japan will now contest the bronze medal on Friday. The following day Dani Alves will seek gold medal number 44 in his career, his first at an Olympic Games.