AL-RAYYAN, Qatar -- When Marquinhos strode up and kissed the ball ahead of Brazil's fourth penalty kick, Neymar was down on his knees in midfield. He looked as if he was sobbing, as if the moment was too big to take in. Marquinhos would either score, which meant Neymar would be up next, carrying with him the weight of 190 million Brazilians. Or he would miss and Neymar's World Cup would be over.
Croatia keeper Dominik Livakovic went one way, Marquinhos' shot the other way ... and kissed the post, rolling back away from the goal line.
Brazil were out of the World Cup, beaten on penalties Friday by a Croatia side that have now won four straight penalty shootouts. Neymar, who remained on the pitch crying in the arms of teammates, knew that while this might not be his final World Cup, at 30 years of age it was likely his last World Cup as a protagonist.
Brazil coach Tite, as is customary in these situations, regardless of whether his team won or lost, disappeared down the tunnel. And maybe he was thinking about sliding doors, about decisions not taken, about roads not travelled that would never have left the Selecao facing spotkicks against Croatia. This was likely his last shot at the World Cup -- "the cycle is over" he said afterward -- and he knew that in a world of second-guessers, the buck would stop with him.
To be fair, there is plenty to second-guess about Brazil in this game and plenty to question when it comes to the near-boundless faith Tite showed in his men and his system. To paraphrase Khalil Gibran's archer, all a coach can do is aim the arrow and let it fly. If the arrow is crooked, if there is wind or rain or if the enemy's armor is stout, it won't find its mark. But so, too, will it fail if the archer's hand trembles or if his aim is faulty.
On this day, even an experienced veteran like Tite, one of the best in the world in his job, saw his hand tremble.
"Sometimes we shoot straight and the ball doesn't fly straight," he said after the game. Except, truth be told, it didn't feel as if he shot straight this time either.
Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic correctly called it before the match when he said that Brazil might "suffer" against teams who can keep the ball, which his elegant midfield of Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic certainly can do (and did). Croatia edged the possession -- adding a midfielder such as Mario Pasalic, in lieu of a winger, in his 4-3-3 also helped -- which is no mean feat against Brazil, perhaps the most technically gifted side in the World Cup.
"I said it before the game and I say it again now," Dalic said after the match. "We have the best midfield in the world and we demonstrated it again today. We controlled the game."
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But Tite stuck to his guns. His front four -- Raphinha and Vinicius wide, Richarlison up top and Neymar tucked in just behind -- stayed high up the pitch, leaving Casemiro and Lucas Paqueta out-manned in the middle of the park. The upshot was that not only did Croatia see a lot of the ball -- and when the opposition has the ball, you can't score -- but they were able to set the sort of bland tempo that suited them and allowed their 30-something stars such as Modric, Brozovic, Ivan Perisic and Dejan Lovren to stay in the game physically and athletically, even after the 120 minutes (plus penalties) they played against Japan.
Brazil, on the other hand, had exerted minimal effort in their round of 16 against South Korea -- they were 4-0 up at half-time -- and the obvious thing would have been to push the pace and make Croatia chase them. Instead, so much of the initiative stayed with Dalic's men, with Brazil content to rely on individual moments. It's a game plan that had served them well thus far in Qatar -- when you have this much talent, it takes only a moment to score -- but it felt as if it was an unnecessary risk. Because while Brazil did have their chances, they were interspersed with needlessly long periods of Croatian possession.
The front four, plus Lucas Paqueta, attacking and the back four, plus Alisson, defending scheme wasn't yielding results. For much of the match, Neymar was uninspired, Vinicius ethereal, Raphinha AWOL and Richarlison under-served.
In those situations, you either adjust your tactics, perhaps by stiffening up the middle of the park so you get more of the ball, or you simply change your personnel up front. Tite opted for the latter. First Raphinha, then Vinicius and then Richarlison made way for Antony, Rodrygo and Pedro, respectively. The soloist, Neymar, didn't change, nor did the hymn sheet; just the choir. And guess what? The song remained the same.
Even as Croatia began to tire and Brazil created chances, the game still felt in the balance -- and then came the moment when Tite must have felt vindicated, as Brazil took the lead at the end of the first period of extra-time with the most Brazilian of goals, converted by their most Brazilian of players.
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Neymar received the ball and sliced his way into the Croatia defence, playing one-twos with Rodrygo and then with Paqueta before rounding Livakovic to make it 1-0. It was his 77th goal for Brazil, equalling Pele's national team record, and from his hospital bed, you could imagine the King nodding in approval. The Brazil bench emptied and mobbed a celebrating Neymar in the corner. The entire squad celebrated, bar two players: Thiago Silva hung back in his penalty area, fingers pointed at the sky, thanking God, while Casemiro lay face down on the pitch, feeling a mixture of relief and exhaustion.
It was almost as if those two great veterans suspected something the others did not -- namely, that it wasn't over. Truth be told, it never is against Croatia -- not until the whistle blows three times. And so, when Josko Gvardiol's tackle cued a Croatian counterattack that quickly -- and inexplicably -- turned into a 3-on-3, and substitute Mislav Orsic found substitute Bruno Petkovic in the box, and he swung a big left boot through the ball, and it ended (with a slight deflection off Marquinhos) beyond Alisson and into the back of the net, suddenly we were level.
That's football, a maddening sport that turns on a dime. One where the burly Petkovic -- Croatia's Mister Bump, who, to that point, had mostly seen the ball bounce off his limbs -- can suddenly turn into an improbable hero. One where the momentum can swing so sharply that as the players lined up for the shootout, it was Brazil who looked stone-faced and fearful while Croatia, chests puffed out, looked as if they were relishing the occasion. One where Tite, with all his attacking riches, can stumble in the worst way and be left to ponder on decisions that went awry.
From his approach -- which handed the keys to Croatia -- to his substitutions -- which kept that approach intact and simply changed the personnel -- to the fact that Brazil conceded on a counter when they were three minutes from reaching a World Cup semifinal, it was one of football's great cardinal sins. And if you want to nitpick, for saving his best penalty-taker, Neymar, for the fifth penalty, the one that never came. (Dalic, who is 4-for-4 in shootouts, couldn't resist saying: "I would have used him sooner.")
There is so much a football coach does not control, and there's no question that Tite will be remembered as one of Brazil's greatest coaches. But on this day, he fell into the trap that coaches, in any sport, so often fall into. He showed too much faith in his players, too much faith in his choices, too much faith in what got them there. And now he'll have to live with the regret, as will Neymar and as will all of Brazil. And one day, maybe, they'll get over it.
"We are all responsible to some degree, but I understand I am the most responsible," Tite said 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 speak for themselves. The stellar midfield might get the headlines while their grit and toughness might be the envy of other teams, but this was a match that, above all, saw them out-think the opposition as much as out-will and out-pass them.