Neymar could draw level with Pele in one respect but he may never stand alongside him in another. Even the day when he equalled perhaps the greatest footballer’s record of 77 Brazil goals proved a harrowing, heart-breaking occasion. Pele was a triple World Cup winner and, at 30, Neymar’s chances of ever lifting the trophy may have vanished in a display of Croatian defiance.
This tournament may end up being defined not by Neymar but by the previously unheralded Dominik Livakovic, the penalty king who showed his prowess in open play, and by the remarkable obduracy of this extraordinary Croatia team. A country of just 4 million people are in a second successive semi-final and the favourites are out. There will be no sixth World Cup for the Selecao. Not now anyway.
Croatia, the serial shootout stars, held their nerve from 12 yards again. Nikola Vlasic, Lovro Majer, Luka Modric and Mislav Orsic all scored. Livakovic parried Rodrygo’s spot-kick and when Marquinhos placed their fourth attempt against the foot of the post, Brazil were out. Neymar, seemingly slated to take the fifth, went unused. He ended up shaking his head in the centre circle. It provided a very different image from the joyous scenes when he seemed to have sent Brazil through. Yet Croatia, the most awkward of opponents, conjured a 116th-minute equaliser from their first shot on target.
And so, in a World Cup populated by superstars, Brazil found their nemeses in a Dinamo Zagreb goalkeeper and a Dinamo Zagreb goalscorer, in Livakovic and the substitute Bruno Petkovic.
But this was a familiar fate for Brazil. The curse of the quarter-final struck again; so, too, their inability to beat Europeans when it matters most. Since claiming their fifth World Cup in 2002, they have had four exits in the last eight; on five successive occasions, they have gone out to European sides. This may have been their most improbable departure, not least because Neymar’s extra-time goal had the feel of a decider.
Confronted with a packed defence, he exchanged passes with Lucas Paqueta to elude them all, round Livakovic and lift a shot over the retreating Borna Sosa. The celebrations this time did not entail the kind of rehearsed routine that irritates Roy Keane. Neymar was surrounded by teammates, their jubilation reflecting the magnitude of matching Pele and the prospect of a semi-final place.
Yet Croatia’s capacity to mount comebacks is almost unrivalled. There were 116 minutes on the clock when Orsic advanced on the left, picked out Petkovic and his shot deflected off Marquinhos to defeat Alisson. If the wild reactions brought a shirtless Petkovic a booking, the substitute considered it a price worth paying, and that sense would have been underlined a few minutes later when his teammates prospered from the spot.
Ultimately, Brazil paid a price for being underwhelming and unimpressive for much of the match. Yet Livakovic nevertheless made the most saves by any goalkeeper in a game in this World Cup, with 10. Meanwhile, Croatia’s passers won the long game. This was the eighth time in their last nine knockout matches that it went to extra-time. They did not panic. They never do.
Modric was magnificent, extending his epic World Cup career still further, as Brazil perhaps lacked enough ball-winners in midfield to dispossess him. Even at 37, he has few peers as a passer and Brazil, for all their talent, lack a playmaker of his calibre. Modric had readily conceded Brazil were the favourites but Croatia did not play like underdogs, even if they long lacked an end product.
Josip Juranovic was excellent, and Danilo might have been sent off for somehow contriving to plant his studs into the Celtic defender’s head. He showed a willingness to surge forward and Croatia’s most promising moves often involved the right-back. He helped set up their first chance, with Mario Pasalic crossing and Ivan Perisic, so often the big-game scorer, scuffing a shot wide.
Juranovic was not alone in flourishing. Josko Gvardiol’s reputation has been enhanced already this tournament; it seemed to grow again while alongside him, Dejan Lovren may have discovered the secret of time travel, turning the clock back towards his peak.
And while Brazil had blown South Korea away with four first-half goals, Croatia proved far more resilient. Tite’s team were subdued before the break, when Vinicius Junior was the brightest of their attackers. He was unfortunate to be removed on the hour as Tite, having first traded Raphinha for Antony, then brought on Rodrygo. Richarlison, meanwhile, grew in influence after the interval until he, too, was replaced. Only Neymar of the attacking quartet remained a constant and he was to show why.
First, however, Brazil encountered an inspired Livakovic. Tite’s side emerged with more intent after half-time. Livakovic twice had to make better saves in as many minutes, to spare Gvardiol an own goal and then deny Vinicius Junior. Richarlison twice dropped deep to release the on-rushing Neymar in identikit fashion; each could have been the record-equalling moment but Livakovic’s second save was excellent. Paqueta was denied twice as well, once when through on goal.
Petkovic, meanwhile, displayed impudent skill to set up a chance for Marcelo Brozovic. It was a sign he would have more of a say. And, after Neymar struck, he responded in kind. Then it was back to Livakovic. Twice Brazil could not get the better of him, and they have four years to reflect on another World Cup they could not win.
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