There were times during Brazil’s final game at this World Cup when Neymar wanted to do too much. As the match remained resolutely deadlocked into its second half, the Paris St-Germain forward dropped ever deeper, attempting to get on the ball, spin and force the issue for his team.
Here was leadership, Brazil’s talisman rising to the occasion and ready at last to fulfil his destiny as his country’s most important player for a generation. It came to fruition in the first half of extra-time when after two swift one-twos he dummied Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic and finished high into an empty net. The Brazilian celebrations were too cathartic for any choreographed dances and went on for at least two minutes. It felt like job done.
How Brazil’s fans will be wishing their captain showed his leadership skills again when the game was sent to an unlikely penalty shootout. Neymar did not feature as his team were dumped out 4-2, seemingly saving himself for a fifth kick which never came.
Instead, up stepped Rodrygo whose poor effort was saved. Casemiro and Pedro had better efforts but Marquinhos was tasked with the fourth kick to keep Brazil in the World Cup. He struck the foot of the post and Neymar was among the walking weeping in the centre circle, dumbfounded as Croatia’s players celebrated around him.
It seemed curious that he shirked a penalty on the biggest stage. With a career record of 74 scored to 15 missed he clearly has the ability, and probably more experience from 12 yards than anyone in the Brazil squad. It is now assumed that the fourth kick is statistically one of the most important in a shootout, and it is often where a team's best penalty taker will be placed into the order.
Only Neymar and his coach will know why he was the exception to the rule.
By Oliver Brown
In the circumstances, it warmed the heart to see Ivan Perisic's two young children running to the centre circle to console him (Neymar). Such is the innocence of youth. But a more troubling question assailed Neymar on this bleak Doha night: why had he not taken one of the four Brazilian penalties? Why did it fall to Marquinhos, a centre-half, to risk the wrath of a nation by hitting the post, and not their record-equalling No 10?
According to Brazil’s plan, Neymar would be fifth in line for the shoot-out, setting him up to play the hero. But as the emblem of this side, Neymar should have had the gumption to walk first to the spot, to set the tempo. Instead, as he waited for the coup de grace that never came, Croatia built an inexorable momentum, consigning Tite's golden generation to the grisliest fate.
Not that the veteran manager, having presided over two straight quarter-final exits, claimed to regret the decision over the running order. "The fifth is the decisive one," he explained. "There is more pressure, and the players who are more prepared for it are best equipped to cope."
How Brazil and the footballing world reacted
'Neymar now left thinking, "what if"'
The BBC's South American football expert Tim Vickery described the defeat as like "a death in the family" for Brazil fans. "That is what it is going to feel like in the next few hours," he said. "Croatia have sent the far bigger nation into mourning."
And sat in the BBC studio, Jurgen Klinsmann blasted Brazil's decision not to give Neymar the first spot-kick.
"They had totally different approaches," Klinsmann said. "Previously you saw your best penalty taker set the tone. For me Neymar would take the first one, you set the tone.
"The momentum really shifted with that Croatia goal, just before the end of extra-time. What goes through your mind if you are a Brazilian player, you get scared. The whole nation expects you to get through and you panic. You are far more nervous because you don't have any time to balance yourself out."
Responding to the debate over why Neymar didn't step up to take a spot-kick, Rio Ferdinand added: "Lads in the studio all speaking on how your best penalty taker can't be left until last... he never takes a pen half the time... Neymar now left thinking what if."
There was also gushing praise heaped on Croatia right-back Josip Juranovic for his performance in stifling the much-vaunted Brazilian attack.
"He is basically telling Vinicius Junior, 'I am in charge here, I am the boss here'," said Klinsmann. "This is a whole mental approach.
"He is saying, 'I don't care about you, you might be the best winger in the World Cup, I am going to go and maybe I am going to score'. And he almost scored."
Fans of Brazil's great South American rivals Argentina, unsurprisingly, relished the demise of the Seleção (watch video below).
'Cowardice of Brazil's coach sealed team's fate'
The Brazilian press were critical of the team's reliance on star player Neymar and also questioned why he "only appeared in images praying for his teammates" instead of stepping up to take a crucial penalty.
Robson Morelli, sports editor of Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, said: "The team lacked everything. It is Neymar's third World Cup without anything. Brazil had only one move: pass the ball to Neymar. But it did not work. Brazil goes back to rock bottom in World Cups."
Marcius Azevedo, also of O Estado de S. Paulo, added: "One of Tite's virtues as a coach has always been learning from mistakes. The elimination against Croatia proved that the coach, this time, did not know how to draw any lessons from the failure in 2018, in Russia. Despite the draw (after extra-time), Brazil still had penalties to prove that they learned from their elimination just over four years ago. But where was Neymar? The ace, the best player, only appeared in the images praying for his teammates and now Brazil returns home."
Their colleague, Almir Leite, continued the theme: "Neymar is the best penalty taker in the Brazilian team. Why, then, did he not open the penalty shootout against Croatia? He was on the field, and logic recommended that he start the pens that would define who would advance to the World Cup semi-finals. Could he miss? Of course he could. But many times, in football and in life, doing the simple, logical thing gives results.
"The team lacked a lot. The selection lacked a lot. Even after Neymar scored a beautiful goal in overtime in a beautiful move. How do you allow an opposing counterattack at the end of overtime? The punishment was deserved."
Coach Tite came in for fierce criticism. "The cowardice of Brazil's coach sealed the team's fate," said Glauco de Pierri, also of O Estado de S. Paulo. "In overtime, once again Neymar's genius made the Brazilian smile. And what did Tite do? He used his irritating stubbornness, put midfielders on, brought Croatia back into the game and wasted the greatest chance of his life. Two World Cups for a coach like Tite is too much. It's past time for change - goodbye!"
Best memes: How internet relished Brazil's defeat
Livakovic Neymar Modric Hırvatistan Brezilya
croatia brasil Richarlison Alisson
Hollanda Holland Argentina Arjantin pic.twitter.com/U1NgKPG06j
— Huzuralem (@huzuralem) December 9, 2022
— FIFA World Cup 2022 (@hanselsapkota07) December 9, 2022
Brazil v S.Korea Brazil v Croatia pic.twitter.com/o2bTiY87PH
— Féach News (@_FeachNews) December 9, 2022
Brazil 🇧🇷 v Croatia 🇭🇷, how it started, how it went: pic.twitter.com/fldcNAhfc2
— chris m jackson (@chrsjcksn) December 9, 2022
— Cody McClain Brown (@smedj) December 9, 2022
— palabra futbol (@futbol_palabra) December 9, 2022
— Rehan (@RayBanMerchant) December 9, 2022