How Croatia Knocked Brazil Out of the World Cup

AL RAYYAN, Qatar — For 45 minutes, then 90, and then 15 more, Brazil tried all the tools in its considerable arsenal: the toe pokes and the back heels, the sweetly bending curlers and the outside-of-the-foot slices. As its frustration mounted, it pivoted to some of soccer’s darker arts: dives and flops, shirt pulls and shoves and appeals to the referee for justice.

None of it worked. Croatia had brought a vise to a gunfight, and for more than two long hours on Friday it calmly and methodically squeezed the life and the joy out of Brazil. Croatia, opponents should know by now, does not exit the World Cup without a fight.

The Brazilians got a late goal. The Croatians answered with an even later one. The game went to a penalty-kick shootout. And only then, with eight quick kicks breaking a tie after 120 minutes could not, was it over.

Croatia was heading to the semifinals. Brazil was going home. Again.

“For me, Brazil is football and football is Brazil,” Croatia defender Borna Sosa said. “To beat Brazil, it’s maybe the best feeling ever.”

Brazil had arrived in Qatar last month with the singular goal it sets for itself at every World Cup: to win it. A five-time World Cup champion, a country that believes it has as rightful a claim as any nation to supremacy in the sport it adores, Brazil had maneuvered through its first three games on cruise control. Its advancement had never been in doubt after winning its first match with its star, Neymar, in the lineup and splitting the next two while he sat out nursing an ankle injury.

Its usual swagger had returned on Monday, with a 4-1 victory over South Korea that featured sublime passing, dancing goal celebrations and a reset of the nation’s annual expectations at sky high.

When it all started to go right on Friday, when Neymar’s goal gave Brazil the lead in extra time, the players and the nation breathed a sigh of relief. But just as suddenly, it all went wrong: a Croatian equalizer, a loss on penalty kicks, a quarterfinal exit instead of a possible date with Argentina in the semifinals on Tuesday.

“What went wrong is that it’s football,” Brazil goalkeeper Alisson said. “Anything can happen.”

Many fans and some journalists immediately blamed Brazil’s coach for the defeat; after the game, he headed off calls to quit by saying he had already decided to leave his post. Others just turned their backs.

“I’m not watching this Cup anymore,” said Andressa Valentim, 26, a forestry engineer who was crying at a cafe in Brasilia after the loss. “For me, it’s over.”

Croatia had clawed its way to the final of the last edition, in Russia in 2018, by surviving three games that went to extra time, and it had already prevailed in one shootout in Qatar, against Japan on Monday.

“When it comes to penalty shootouts, we become the favorites,” Croatia Coach Zlatko Dalic said through an interpreter after beating Brazil. It was, he said, “as if our opponents had already lost the game at that point.”

The path there had been steady, but not straight. Croatia had seemed to run out of rope at the end of the first extra-time period, when Neymar completed a lightning-speed give and go to score, giving Brazil a deserved, if delayed, lead. Its fans exhaled. Its nation did, too.

But Croatia had a response for that as well: a counterattack in the 117th minute, a pass out of nowhere and into the middle, a hard shot by Bruno Petkovic deflected in to tie the score. It was only then that the teams’ World Cup quarterfinal, scoreless after two halves and no longer so after two periods of extra time, arrived at the place where so many of Croatia’s games wind up now: in a penalty-kick shootout.

And by then even the Brazilians probably could sense the end that was coming.

Four Croatians calmly stepped up and converted their penalties. Two Brazilians — Rodrygo, who went first, and Marquinhos, who went last — did not.

And just like that, Brazil, which had one foot in the semifinals less than 30 minutes earlier, was out.

It could hardly believe it. Marquinhos dropped to his knees just in front of the penalty spot and then rested his forehead on the grass. Neymar, who never got to take his attempt in the shootout, held his hands over his face at midfield, then rose and bit his collar, his face a disbelieving stare. 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 far side of the field, Croatia’s delirious sprints in every direction coalesced around goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, who had saved Rodrygo’s penalty and forced Marquinhos to try to cut his razor close.

Croatia, the team that will not be beaten, will face the winner of Friday’s second game between Argentina and the Netherlands in the semifinals next week. Block out some extra time for it if you plan to watch.

Brazil cannot say it didn’t try everything to win. When Vinícius Júnior and Richarlison and Raphina couldn’t find a way past Livakovic, Antony and Rodrygo and Pedro were sent on to try. When Neymar finally found a way through, the lead lasted only about 15 minutes. The pressure returned. The exit door loomed.

Croatia’s shootout was as clinical as its broader performance was methodical. Nikola Vlasic went left. Lavro Majer went down the middle. Luka Modric shot high. Mislav Orsic shot low.

When, a moment later, Marquinhos pinged his attempt solidly off the left post, the field was quickly awash in colors of people still trying to sort out what had just happened. The Brazilians, the favorites dressed in their famous yellow shirts, staggered around or stood in place or sat off to the side, resigned to the fact that the country will now wait another four years to add to its record haul of five World Cup titles.

Croatia’s red-and-white-checked celebration was everywhere by then, a haphazard sea of flags and hugs and shirtless men and running children scattered around the field. One of Modric’s children leaped into his arms. Lovren took one of his by the hand for a walk. And in the center of the field, Leonardo and Manuela Perisic, the children of Croatia forward Ivan Perisic, made a bee line for the center circle, toward Neymar, who was then wrapped in a teary embrace with a teammate.

A Brazil staff member stepped in to head off Leonardo, extending an arm to suggest it might not be the right time. But Leonardo had caught Neymar’s eye, and the Brazilian turned toward him. The boy and the superstar clasped hands. Neymar cradled the boy’s head. They exchanged a fast word. Then they parted, the boy running off with his sister, back to the Croatian celebrations. Neymar soon headed to the locker room, toward another long wait.

James Wagner contributed reporting from Al Rayyan, and André Spigariol from Brasilia.