Once World Cup favorites, Brazil's talent fails to advance past Croatia in quarterfinals | Opinion




All the talent and nothing to show for it.

And Brazil has nobody but itself to blame for leaving the World Cup empty-handed.

The squad that came in as heavy favorites to win a sixth World Cup title is heading home after the quarterfinals, blowing a lead with just five minutes left and then getting outclassed by Croatia in a penalty kick shootout. A roster with nine - nine! - forwards, including that guy named Neymar, and not one, but two of the best goalkeepers in the world, and Brazil still couldn't get it done.

"We need to be ready to share our joy and also need to be willing to share our sadness. I think there is a new generation of players that will find strength in adversities," Brazil coach Tite said.

"Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose," he added. "That can happen in football. But I respect the decision, I respect the result."

There are about 214 million people who won't.

Brazil had this game won until it didn't. Worse, it let the game get to penalties, where everyone knows Croatia is unbeatable. It's now 4-0 in games decided by penalties at this World Cup and the 2018 tournament in Russia.

As if that's not galling enough, Neymar never took a penalty because Tite had him fifth in the lineup, figuring a player of his experience would handle the pressure of the decisive kick best. Only it never got that far.

Rodrygo, first up for Brazil, had his attempt blocked by Dominik Livaković, who was the equivalent of a brick wall all night.

"He saved that first penalty and gave us confidence and gave a lack of confidence to our rival because they were afraid he would save us again," Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said.

Because Nikola Vlasic, Lovro Majer, Luka Modric and Mislav Orsic all made their penalties for Croatia, Marquinhos, up fourth, needed to make his to keep Brazil alive. He didn't, clanking his shot off the post.

That was it for the Seleção, who could only watch in shock as Croatia celebrated.

"We demonstrated what it means to be Croatia," Dalic said.

Brazil players react during the penalty shootout at the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Croatia and Brazil, at the Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Friday, Dec.
Brazil players react during the penalty shootout at the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Croatia and Brazil, at the Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Friday, Dec.  

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This squad was supposed to remind everyone what it means to be Brazil, a team that has set the World Cup standard with its style, flair and prodigious talent. It has won a record five titles, and the players on its World Cup teams are like a Who's Who of soccer.

Since winning its fifth title in 2002, however, Brazil has lost in the quarterfinals four times. It reached the semifinals in 2014, only to get blown out by Germany 7-1 on home soil with Neymar out with a back injury.

This early exit might sting the most because the game was in hand.

Brazil had been peppering Livakovic all night before Neymar finally broke through in the 106th minute.

He dribbled through Croatia's defense and fought past Borna Sosa, leaving only Livakovic in his way. He danced past the goalkeeper and placed his shot perfectly, putting it in of the goal so Sosa couldn't come in and clear it at the last second.

The goal was the 77th of Neymar's career, tying Pelé for most by a Brazilian man. Marta holds the country's record with 115.

Brazil
Brazil's Neymar sits on the pitch at the end of the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Croatia and Brazil.  

With a 1-0 lead, and Croatia's defense appearing gassed from its non-stop effort, all Brazil had to do was close it out.

It couldn't do it.

In the 117th - just five minutes before the final whistle blew - Brazil got careless and gave little resistance to Croatia's counterattack. Bruno Petkovic's rocket of a shot ricocheted off Marquinho's leg and past Alisson, tying the game and giving Croatia a decided emotional advantage.

Croatia won two games on penalties during the 2018 World Cup, when it lost to France in the final. It beat Japan on penalties on Monday to reach these quarterfinals.

"It has become quite normal for us in penalty shootouts," Dalic said. "Our opponent had already lost the game at that point."

Tite's tactics -- not having Neymar up earlier in the penalty lineup, substituting Richarlison and Vinicius Jr. during regulation -- will surely be questioned.

But in the end, Brazil simply never delivered on its considerable promise. This was a team that was supposed to herald a new generation of Brazilian brilliance. Neymar had support from Richarlison and Vinicius, and Danilo and the ageless Thiago Silva are defensive stalwarts. Alisson and Ederson are both world-class goalkeepers.

Brazil should have sambaed its way through the tournament, as Pele and Ronaldo and Ronaldinho's teams once did. Instead, it often looked flat and tentative, and had to scramble for goals - and wins - in the second half.

It finally seemed to unlock something with its round of 16 rout of South Korea, playing with the joy and flair so unique to Brazil soccer. But whatever it was, it disappeared quickly against Croatia.

Tite defended his team, repeatedly mentioning its significant advantage in shots (19-9) and shots on goal (11-1). But the only stat that matters is two, as in how many games short of a sixth title Brazil finished.

How a team with so much talent and potential could have made such a meek exit is a mystery. One Brazil will now have four more years to figure out.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dominik Livaković's World Cup heroics lead to Croatia win over Brazil

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