AL-RAYYAN, Qatar — When Marquinhos strode up and kissed the ball forward of Brazil’s fourth penalty kick, Neymar was down on his knees in midfield. He seemed as if he was sobbing, as if the second was too massive to take in. Marquinhos would both rating, which meant Neymar could be up subsequent, carrying with him the load of 190 million Brazilians. Or he would miss and Neymar’s World Cup could be over.
Croatia keeper Dominik Livakovic went a technique, Marquinhos’ shot the opposite manner … and kissed the put up, rolling again away from the purpose line.
Brazil had been out of the World Cup, crushed on penalties Friday by a Croatia facet which have now gained 4 straight penalty shootouts. Neymar, who remained on the pitch crying in the arms of teammates, knew that whereas this won’t be his last World Cup, at 30 years of age it was probably his final World Cup as a protagonist.
Brazil coach Tite, as is customary in these conditions, no matter whether or not his workforce gained or misplaced, disappeared down the tunnel. And perhaps he was enthusiastic about sliding doorways, about choices not taken, about roads not travelled that might by no means have left the Selecao dealing with spotkicks towards Croatia. This was probably his final shot on the World Cup — “the cycle is over” he mentioned afterward — and he knew that in a world of second-guessers, the buck would cease with him.
To be honest, there may be loads to second-guess about Brazil in this recreation and loads to query when it involves the near-boundless religion Tite confirmed in his males and his system. To paraphrase Khalil Gibran’s archer, all a coach can do is goal the arrow and let it fly. If the arrow is crooked, if there may be wind or rain or if the enemy’s armor is stout, it will not discover its mark. But so, too, will it fail if the archer’s hand trembles or if his goal is defective.
On today, even an skilled veteran like Tite, the most effective in the world in his job, noticed his hand tremble.
“Sometimes we shoot straight and the ball doesn’t fly straight,” he mentioned after the sport. Except, reality be instructed, it did not really feel as if he shot straight this time both.
Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic appropriately referred to as it earlier than the match when he mentioned that Brazil may “suffer” towards groups who can hold the ball, which his elegant midfield of Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic actually can do (and did). Croatia edged the possession — including a midfielder corresponding to Mario Pasalic, in lieu of a winger, in his 4-3-3 additionally helped — which is not any imply feat towards Brazil, maybe essentially the most technically gifted facet in the World Cup.
“I said it before the game and I say it again now,” Dalic mentioned after the match. “We have the best midfield in the world and we demonstrated it again today. We controlled the game.”
– O’Hanlon: The artwork of successful a penalty shootout (E+)
But Tite caught to his weapons. His entrance 4 — Raphinha and Vinicius huge, Richarlison up high and Neymar tucked in simply behind — stayed excessive up the pitch, leaving Casemiro and Lucas Paqueta out-manned in the center of the park. The upshot was that not solely did Croatia see a whole lot of the ball — and when the opposition has the ball, you may’t rating — however they had been capable of set the kind of bland tempo that suited them and allowed their 30-something stars corresponding to Modric, Brozovic, Ivan Perisic and Dejan Lovren to remain in the sport bodily and athletically, even after the 120 minutes (plus penalties) they performed towards Japan.
Brazil, then again, had exerted minimal effort in their spherical of 16 towards South Korea — they had been 4-0 up at half-time — and the apparent factor would have been to push the tempo and make Croatia chase them. Instead, a lot of the initiative stayed with Dalic’s males, with Brazil content material to depend on particular person moments. It’s a recreation plan that had served them effectively to this point in Qatar — when you might have this a lot expertise, it takes solely a second to attain — however it felt as if it was an pointless threat. Because whereas Brazil did have their possibilities, they had been interspersed with needlessly lengthy durations of Croatian possession.
The entrance 4, plus Lucas Paqueta, attacking and the again 4, plus Alisson, defending scheme wasn’t yielding outcomes. For a lot of the match, Neymar was uninspired, Vinicius ethereal, Raphinha AWOL and Richarlison under-served.
In these conditions, you both modify your ways, maybe by stiffening up the center of the park so that you get extra of the ball, otherwise you merely change your personnel up entrance. Tite opted for the latter. First Raphinha, then Vinicius and then Richarlison made manner for Antony, Rodrygo and Pedro, respectively. The soloist, Neymar, did not change, nor did the hymn sheet; simply the choir. And guess what? The music remained the identical.
Even as Croatia started to tire and Brazil created possibilities, the sport nonetheless felt in the stability — and then got here the second when Tite should have felt vindicated, as Brazil took the lead on the finish of the primary interval of extra-time with essentially the most Brazilian of objectives, transformed by their most Brazilian of gamers.
Ale Moreno wasn’t impressed by Neymar’s show towards Croatia, regardless of his nice purpose.
Neymar acquired the ball and sliced his manner into the Croatia defence, taking part in one-twos with Rodrygo and then with Paqueta earlier than rounding Livakovic to make it 1-0. It was his 77th purpose for Brazil, equalling Pele’s nationwide workforce report, and from his hospital mattress, you may think about the King nodding in approval. The Brazil bench emptied and mobbed a celebrating Neymar in the nook. The total squad celebrated, bar two gamers: Thiago Silva hung again in his penalty space, fingers pointed on the sky, thanking God, whereas Casemiro lay face down on the pitch, feeling a mix of reduction and exhaustion.
It was virtually as if these two nice veterans suspected one thing the others didn’t — specifically, that it wasn’t over. Truth be instructed, it by no means is towards Croatia — not till the whistle blows thrice. And so, when Josko Gvardiol’s sort out cued a Croatian counterattack that shortly — and inexplicably — became a 3-on-3, and substitute Mislav Orsic discovered substitute Bruno Petkovic in the field, and he swung an enormous left boot by way of the ball, and it ended (with a slight deflection off Marquinhos) past Alisson and into the again of the web, instantly we had been stage.
That’s soccer, a maddening sport that activates a dime. One the place the burly Petkovic — Croatia’s Mister Bump, who, to that time, had principally seen the ball bounce off his limbs — can instantly flip into an unbelievable hero. One the place the momentum can swing so sharply that because the gamers lined up for the shootout, it was Brazil who seemed stone-faced and fearful whereas Croatia, chests puffed out, seemed as in the event that they had been relishing the event. One the place Tite, with all his attacking riches, can stumble in the worst manner and be left to ponder on choices that went awry.
From his strategy — which handed the keys to Croatia — to his substitutions — which saved that strategy intact and merely modified the personnel — to the truth that Brazil conceded on a counter once they had been three minutes from reaching a World Cup semifinal, it was one among soccer’s nice cardinal sins. And if you wish to nitpick, for saving his greatest penalty-taker, Neymar, for the fifth penalty, the one which by no means got here. (Dalic, who’s 4-for-4 in shootouts, could not resist saying: “I would have used him sooner.”)
There is a lot a soccer coach does not management, and there is no query that Tite can be remembered as one among Brazil’s biggest coaches. But on today, he fell into the lure that coaches, in any sport, so typically fall into. He confirmed an excessive amount of religion in his gamers, an excessive amount of religion in his decisions, an excessive amount of religion in what acquired them there. And now he’ll should stay with the remorse, as will Neymar and as will all of Brazil. And someday, perhaps, they’re going to recover from it.
“We are all responsible to some degree, but I understand I am the most responsible,” Tite mentioned post-match. “But there are no such things as heroes and villains in sport. You share joy and you share sadness.”
As for Croatia, two straight World Cup semifinals converse for themselves. The stellar midfield may get the headlines whereas their grit and toughness could be the envy of different groups, however this was a match that, above all, noticed them out-think the opposition as a lot as out-will and out-pass them.