All flair and dazzle, Brazil wonder what went wrong
They couldn’t believe it.
On the sideline at Education City Stadium, forward Richarlison stared ahead. Pedro, another forward, hunched over with his hands on his knees. And the superstar Neymar, the man responsible for Brazil’s go-ahead goal, started crying, then sat at midfield and cried some more.
Stunned and heartbroken, Brazil’s players struggled to process what had just transpired on the field and how they had blown a 1-0 lead against Croatia with 15 minutes left in extra time. Without a shot on goal to that point, Croatia pried the game from the jaws of defeat, tied the score in the 117th minute and then beat a leading World Cup favourite, 4-2, in a penalty shootout in the quarter-finals on Friday.
After going 105 minutes without scoring, Brazil’s talented attack finally broke through a tough Croatian defence. Suddenly, it felt like all the pressure on Brazil had been lifted, its joy had returned and it just needed to play keep-away for the second period of extra time. But, then, it all unraveled so quickly and Croatia, the wily 2018 World Cup finalist who have excelled at winning penalty shootouts in the knockout stage, were victorious once again.
“It’s hard to find the words to describe this moment,” Neymar said, pausing at times to compose himself as he spoke to reporters two hours after the final whistle.
As Richarlison walked toward the team bus and stopped to talk to reporters, his eyes were still bright red from the earlier tears. “It hurts,” he said.
Brazil may come to regret several moments of their loss to Croatia. How did Brazil fail to convert more of their 19 shots — 11 of them on goal — with all of their speed and dazzle? How could it not defend for the final 15-plus minutes of the game? And how could Brazil let two substitutes on a counterattack following a turnover — Mislav Orsic sprinting with the ball down the left side and then centering to Bruno Petkovic, who fired the shot — catch it off guard?
“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” coach Tite said through an interpreter. “Sometimes it’s a great performance. Sometimes you kick the ball toward the goal, and it deviates. I respect the result.”
Tite was referring to that final shot by Petkovic, which deflected off Brazil defender Eder Militao’s leg and past the diving goalkeeper Alisson. As Tite pointed out, that was Croatia’s one and only shot on goal all game. But it was all Croatia needed to then return to its style of play — possession and defence — and force a penalty shootout in which it knew it had an edge given its experience and its goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic.
“When we scored the goal for 1-1,” Croatia defender Josip Juranovic said, “I was thinking, ‘We have this.’”
In the shootout, four Croatians converted their penalties, while Brazilian forward Rodrygo had his saved by Livakovic and Marquinhos, who went last, hit the left post.
“It’s really emotional,” Alisson said. “The frustration is huge.”
He added later, “We are proud of the dedication of each player and what we did on the pitch. In my opinion, we didn’t deserve to lose this game. It’s football, and at the World Cup, you have to deal with penalties as well, and unfortunately, we were defeated.”
After the game, Brazilian players and Tite were left to deal with the aftermath of their early exit. Tite, 61, the team’s coach since 2016, said that his time in the position was over.
“It’s a painful defeat, but I’m at peace with myself,” he said. “It’s the end of the cycle.”
To win, Croatia defender Borna Sosa said he and his teammates focused on the finer details of their game and their preparation because they didn’t have a team full of players at the elite clubs in the world like Brazil.
Croatia, too, he said, was a country of only four million people compared to Brazil’s 214 million.
“We’ve shown many, many times that we’re capable to win the game when we’re the underdogs,” he said. “We will always be to these big countries like France or England or Argentina or Brazil. They have much more players because they have many more people. But we don’t have problems with this. The bigger pressure is on those teams.”
Even though Brazil were a favourite because of their talent and performances, Alisson said, “We don’t have anything to regret.”
He continued: “We would not change anything because we fight and we prepare ourselves, and we were ready for this time to win the World Cup. But this is football, and things are not always going to happen the way we want. We have to deal with that as well.”