AL RAYYAN, Qatar — For 45 minutes, then 90, then 15 more, Brazil tried every tool in their considerable arsenal: back toes and heels, slightly bent curlers and outside of the foot slices. As his frustration mounted, his coach sent in new attackers and his team turned to some of football’s darker arts: dives and flops, feigned outrage and shirt pulling, appeals for arbiter for justice.
None of this worked. Croatia had brought a vise to a shootout, and for more than two long hours on Friday they calmly and methodically squeezed Brazil’s life and joy. Croatia, opponents should know by now, are not leaving the World Cup without a fight.
Yet that fight seemed over towards the end of the first extra period, when Neymar fired a lightning-fast round-trip to score, giving Brazil a deserved, if delayed, lead. Her fans exhaled. His nation too. But Croatia also responded to that: a counter-attack in the 117th minute, a pass from nowhere and in the middle, a hard shot from Bruno Petkovic deflected to level the score.
It was only then that the quarter-final of the Teams World Cup, scoreless after two halves and more after two periods of extra time, arrived at the place where so many games of Croatia end now: in a penalty shootout.
And by then, even the Brazilians could probably feel the end coming.
Four Croats stepped in and, calmly and one by one, converted their penalties. Two Brazilians – Rodrygo, who went first, and Marquinhos, who went last – didn’t.
And just like that, the Brazil World Cup was over.
He could hardly believe it. Marquinhos dropped to his knees just outside the penalty spot and then rested his forehead on the grass. Neymar, who was never able to shoot, held his hands to his face in midfield, then stood up and bit his collar, his face a look of disbelief. Thiago Silva came over and gave him a kiss on the check. Daniel Alves arrived with a hug. A tear rolled down Neymar’s cheek.
On the other side of the pitch, Croatia’s wild sprints in all directions coalesced around goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, who had saved Rodrygo’s penalty and forced Marquinhos to try and cut his razor.
Croatia, who have now taken five knockout matches in extra time at the last two World Cups and survived all of them, are moving on. The team that will not be beaten will face the winner of Friday’s second match between Argentina and the Netherlands in the semi-finals next week. Allow extra time for this if you plan to watch.
Brazil will have liked their chances of entering Friday’s game. He had picked up wins in his first two group games and rotated his side in the third while Neymar was sidelined with an ankle injury suffered in his opener in Qatar. A 4-1 victory over South Korea in the round of 16 raised expectations to the highest level.
Croatia had frustrated the Brazilians, but substitutions and a moment of brilliance seemed to have finally tipped the impasse, finally, in the latter’s favour. The play that produced Brazil’s goal came after a stretch when it was down and the pressure on the tired Croats. It started with Neymar sprinting straight into the penalty area, and included a quick exchange of passes, then a back and forth at full speed with Lucas Paquetá.
Neymar, who had started the game, finished it by dismissing two defenders, bypassing the goalkeeper and raising a shot at the top of the goal. His goal, 105 minutes into the tightest match Neymar and Co. have played at this World Cup, sparked a raucous celebration in the stands and next to Croatia’s goal, and produced a sense of relief. palpable for a team whose only goal at every World Cup is to win it.
But Croatia is never easy. Denmark and Russia (on penalties) and England (after extra time) found out in 2018, and Japan (on penalties) suffered the same end on Monday.
Croatia are not so much defensive but extremely organized and perfectly savvy. Luka Modric, his 37-year-old bandleader, controlled the midfield, and centre-backs Dejan Lovren and Josko Gvardiol allowed the Brazilian forwards only brief and rare glances at Livakovic’s goal.
Brazil can’t say they haven’t tried everything. When Vinícius Júnior and Richarlison and Raphina could not find a way past Livakovic, Antony and Rodrygo and Pedro were sent to try. When Neymar finally found a way, the advance only lasted about 15 minutes, the pressure returned, the exit door stood up.
Croatia’s shootout was as clinical as their wider performance was methodical. Nikola Vlasic went left. Lavro Majer shot in the middle. Modric went high. Mislav Orsic fell low. And Brazil came out.
Soon the field was flooded with colors trying to unravel what had happened. The Brazilians, in yellow, staggering or standing or sitting sideways, have resigned themselves to the fact that the country will wait another four years to add to its record five World Cup titles.
Croatia’s red and white checkered celebration was everywhere then, a disorderly sea of flags and hugs and children sprinting around the pitch. One of Modric’s descendants jumped into his arms. Lovren took one if his children by the hand. And in the center of the pitch, Leonardo and Manuela Perisic, the children of Croatian midfielder Ivan Perisic, bee-lined for the center circle, and to Neymar, wrapped in a tearful embrace with a team-mate.
A Brazilian staff member stepped in to steer Leonardo away, holding out an arm to suggest it might not be the right time. But Leonardo had caught Neymar’s eye, and the Brazilian turned to him. The boy and the superstar shook hands and exchanged a quick word. Then they parted ways, the boy running back to the Croatian celebrations, Neymar to the locker room, to another long wait.
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