Ken Early: Rather than mourn for Brazil, world should marvel at miracle of Croatia

This astonishing team, led by the greatest midfield player of his generation, has perfected the art of doing just enough

(aet) Croatia win 4-2 on penalties

Brazil are out of Qatar 2022, outfought and outlasted at Education City Stadium by Croatia, the World Cup’s great survivors.

A brilliant goal by Neymar was not enough to deliver Brazil to the semi-final, as the Croatians somehow found the energy to force a late equaliser and take the match to penalty shoot-out, which they won 4-2.

Rather than mourn for Brazil, the world should marvel at the miracle of Croatia, a country of 3.9 million people that now stands on the verge of its second successive World Cup final. This astonishing team, led by the greatest midfield player of his generation, Luka Modric, has perfected the art of doing exactly what is required to get through World Cup knock-out games: no more, no less. Whatever the level they need to find on the day, Croatia will find it.


Their road to the final of Russia 2018 followed a formula: go behind, equalise, go to extra-time, and win – usually on penalties. Today they mixed it up by waiting until extra-time to go behind, and few believed they would recover after Neymar’s brilliant goal in the 110th minute seemed certain to have sent Brazil to the semis.

But in the 117th minute a header out of defence fell to Modric, who turned Casemiro and set his team-mates away behind the Brazilian midfield. Bruno Petkovic arrived on to a cutback to score via a deflection off Marquinhos. The Brazilians were dragged to a shoot-out which, as far as their hopes of survival in this tournament were concerned, might as well have been a firing squad.

Croatia’s goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic saved the first Brazilian penalty from Rodrygo, and with each Croatia player scoring, the end for Brazil came when Marquinhos cracked their fourth penalty off the foot of the post.

Against South Korea, Brazil had scored early and often, then turned the last hour of the match into an exhibition. Against Croatia, they never matched the bravado they showed in the last match at 4-0 up.

Indeed after just a few minutes it was clear that Brazil were finding it hard to create anything, with Casemiro and Lucas Paqueta exchanging square passes in front of Croatia’s compact midfield triangle, which occupied the centre, and left no dangerous gaps.

Who was going to open this up? You looked for the dribblers, Neymar and Vinicius, but on the odd occasions they did receive a pass, they ran into dead ends. A blocked Vinicius shot through a crowd was the closest they came to a chance.

The superior talent was to be found in the red and white checks of Croatia.

Modric’s style is hard to describe. He is not a positional specialist like Sergio Busquets, or someone who takes a breather whenever his team loses the ball, like nearly every other 37-year old player. He does a little bit of everything. He somehow still covers the entire pitch between the two boxes, roaming where his intuition takes him, solving problems for his team-mates, adding a little bit of intelligence with every pass.

You can’t anticipate what he is going to do because he mixes it up so much. Sometimes he runs with the ball, sometimes he plays it first time, sometimes he pretends to dribble to draw an opponent in before passing. And when Croatia lose possession he is always to be found back in that tight midfield triangle that closes and cuts off the passing lanes.

One move late in the first half when he spirited the ball away from a tight situation by the touchline with a couple of flicked outside-of-the-foot passers in a row brought a huge cheer and applause from the Croatian fans. To see such casual superiority transmitted confidence to every Croat, in the stands and on the field: they’ve got the yellow shirts and the five stars, but it’s better to have Modric.

It’s not just that he was the best performer in this particular game. He was showing that he was a level above every other footballer on the pitch, and everyone in the game knew it. He had established psychological dominance over Brazil. They were afraid to go near him in case he made them look stupid. And led by his example, his team were beginning to dominate the game.

The only question was how long he could keep it up. He’d had to be substituted after 100 minutes of the extra-time victory over Japan, looking totally exhausted: 37 is 37. Could Croatia score before Modric ran out of gas?

Brazil had a couple of chances at the start of the second half but the match soon resumed the same pattern, with Croatia the more settled, structured side. On 56 minutes, the hunched, thoughtful figure in Brazil’s technical area made his first intervention.

Tite took off Raphinha and sent on the more explosive and unpredictable Antony. It was an admission that Brazil’s Plan A had failed. Raphinha is the type of player who needs the machine to function around him. Antony might make something happen by himself.

The next sub was more surprising: Vinicius Jr hooked on 64 and replaced by Rodrygo. Neymar, who was yet to create anything, remained. Tite was staking everything on his main man.

It seemed, for a long time, like a bad bet. There were missed chances, dribbles to nowhere, passes to nobody, and all the while a slow building undercurrent of dread.

And then, in the 110th minute: deliverance.

There was no apparent danger as Neymar took a short pass from Marquinhos 35 yards out and turned to face the Croatian goal, certainly not if you were to judge by Neymar’s performance until this point: he had missed chances, run into dead ends and generally failed to make things happen.

But this time he dismantled Croatia’s midfield with two successive one-twos, shrugged off the challenge of the last defender and rounded the challenge of Livakovic before firing into the roof of the net.

Brazil’s celebrations continued through the break and did not stop until they were engulfed by the doom of that sudden Croatian equaliser. Two hours after full-time the shattered Brazilians still had not emerged from their dressingroom.

The Neymar era of Brazil World Cup teams began in 2014 against Croatia in São Paulo – a 3-1 win in which Neymar scored twice – and most likely has ended in Al-Rayyan against the same opponents: 13 matches, eight goals, many painful memories.

In 2014 a serious back injury ruled him out of the semi-final at a point when he had been arguably the tournament’s best attacker. In 2018, an injury suffered playing for PSG before the World Cup meant he arrived short of fitness, and just when he seemed to be playing his way into form Brazil were knocked out by Belgium.

Here in Qatar he fought back from an ankle injury and at last managed to mark a decisive World Cup with a signature moment of genius, only to see it all turn to ashes. He didn’t even get to take a penalty in the shoot-out, after Tite decided that he should be the one to take the fifth – the ‘pressure kick’ – which never came. Tonight he equalled Pelé's record of 77 goals for Brazil, but he has never played in the World Cup beyond the quarter-final.

Neymar’s club career, which he himself fatally steered towards irrelevance by joining PSG – has been in decline for some time now, his talent blunted by injuries, his youthful energy subsiding into numbness.

Yet he had seemed rejuvenated this season, apparently inspired by the imminence of another chance to win the World Cup, the ambition of his life. The crushing of his last true dream in football will have a profound effect.

There remains the faint hope of one last chance. Lionel Messi has dazzled here at the age of 35, and the example of Modric shows everyone what is possible at the outer limit of luck, talent and dedication.

It’s doubtful whether Neymar still loves the game enough to make the sacrifices necessary to be good enough to play another World Cup for Brazil in 2026, when he will be 34. If he can find the strength to try, maybe it will help to know that he is probably due some luck.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer