Croatia stunned Brazil in a dramatic penalty shootout on Friday to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup after Marquinhos slammed the decisive kick against the post.
Neymar looked to have kept Brazil’s hopes of a sixth World Cup title alive by starting and finishing a brilliant effort in extra time that equaled Pele’s international scoring record of 77 goals.
But he was left distraught and sobbing after Brazil lost a shootout that was triggered when Bruno Petkovic popped up to make it 1-1 at the end of extra time.
Neymar’s individual flash of brilliance had lit up a tense and often niggly game that finished goalless in normal time, Croatia’s man-of-the-match goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic pulling off a series of stunning blocks to keep the Brazilians at bay.
But as the minutes of extra time ticked down at the Education City Stadium, Petkovic popped up to connect with a cross and his deflected shot found its way into the net past the outstretched arm of Brazil ‘keeper Alisson.
If Brazil were rocked by the late equaliser, worse was to come in a series of nerve-shredding spot kicks.
The tone was set when Nikola Vlasic slammed the opening penalty down the middle and into the net, before Livakovic tipped away Rodrygo’s first effort for Brazil.
In the end it came down to Paris Saint-Germain centre-back Marquinhos who strode up confidently, but saw his kick rebound off the post to give Croatia a 4-2 win in the shootout and a place in the last four for the second World Cup in a row.
As the Croatian players sprinted across the turf in joy, Marquinhos sank to his knees and Neymar was soon in tears, being consoled by veteran teammate Dani Alves.
Livakovic, who again played a huge role after his heroics against Japan, said: “We’re raised as fighters. We spare no effort — we’re always giving our best and that’s our recipe for success.”
The Croatian team coached by Zlatko Dalic followed up their win over Japan on penalties in the last round with this victory, which might well go down as their greatest-ever triumph.
Brazil will have to wait at least another four years for that sixth title — by 2026 it will be 24 years since they last won it.
Instead of a blockbuster South American semi-final between Brazil and Argentina, it is Croatia who will face the winners of the clash later Friday between Lionel Messi’s side and the Netherlands.
– ‘Pretty stupid’ –
Seven-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi is hoping to end his wait for a World Cup after Argentina lost to Germany in the final eight years ago.
The Copa America holders go up against the Dutch at Lusail Stadium, the venue for the December 18 final.
The two countries have met five times at the World Cup, including in 1978 final, which Argentina won 3-1 after extra time.
Attention switches on Saturday to the heavyweight clash between defending champions France and England.
France captain Hugo Lloris said the rivalry between the two countries was special.
“These are two great football nations and the rivalry between us also exists in other sports like rugby,” he said on Friday.
“When you get to such a high level these are great battles. At an event like the World Cup there is a special flavour to a France-England game. But we are preparing for a World Cup quarter-final, regardless of the opponent.”
England boss Gareth Southgate has vowed to go on the attack, despite the threat from the fleet-footed Kylian Mbappe, arguably the best player in the world.
“There is no point going into a game like this and just covering up and sitting on the ropes,” he told ITV. “We believe we can cause problems with the ball and we intend to do that.”
In the other game on Saturday, Morocco, in the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time, take on Portugal.
Portugal on Thursday denied reports that Cristiano Ronaldo threatened to quit the camp after he was benched for their 6-1 rout of Switzerland in the last 16.