Croatia defeated Brazil 4-2 on penalties in the first quarterfinal of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup. The Brazilians played well but with the ostentatiously obvious demeanor that they would eventually win instead of with the humility of Croatia who worked hard for the win. The South Americans played at a much slower tempo than their games against Serbia, Switzerland, or South Korea, and with no sign of the intensity and urgency, the match required. The game was Brazil’s to lose, and they eventually gave it away, it was also Croatia’s to manage to a win and Zlatko Dalic and his charges did so masterfully, on their terms.
The entire match was played at Croatia’s pace which entailed mostly prolonged possessions as a way of tiring and frustrating the Brazilians and depriving them of any rhythm. The tactic was particularly obvious when Brazil managed a spate of positive attacks as the immediate Croatian response was to slow the game to a crawl with sideways and backward passes when they got the ball. The fact that Croatia did this all game long and that Brazilian coach, Tite, found no way to counter it was a major failing of the coach who had mostly found a way forward since his quarterfinal loss to Belgium in Russia 2018.
With the exception of a handful of goal opportunities which were excellently saved by Dominick Livakovic, the hottest keeper in the tourney, and one magnificent Neymar goal, the Croatians dictated the game’s tempo for 120 minutes. And then came the coup de gras. For Brazil a scary but true soccer statistic reared its ugly head, it is almost always the weakest link, not the biggest star, who tends to have an oversized impact on the outcome of a match in our sport.
The omen actually came twice—as if the gods wanted us to take note. The first time was when that link, Danilo, was chosen as a starter and the second came in the 25th minute when that link went studs first at a very high ball in a relatively benign area of the field and somehow missed Croatian Joseph Juranovic’s head. English referee, Michael Oliver, forgave the outrageous foul which could have earned a direct red card, and instead awarded a yellow card. But right then and there, Papa knew.
Juranovic would go on to have a great day as Danilo felt it his duty to be anywhere but in his defensive position, which is his wont, and yet, somehow his ability to convince coach after coach that he is an elite wingback has been unfettered. The Croatians, of course, immediately doubled down on their attacks down Danilo’s side but also used it as their safety valve when needing empty space to maintain possession. Unfortunately for the South Americans, their tendency was to attack incessantly down the Croatian’s left flank, counting on Vinicius Jr. and Neymar to team up. Sadly for them, that is also the side where Danilo plays and on the night he felt himself a midfielder moving up to play with Vinni and Ney. This made Juranovic’s sandbox all the bigger.
Unbelievably, despite their prior success mixing their fronts of attack, the Brazilians only seemed able to use the left wing while ignoring the middle of the pitch and the right wing. It is hard to win games when you avoid playing in three-quarters of the pitch. Poor Richarlison and Raphinha were substituted because they seemed to be ineffective in the match, but in truth, neither the center forward nor the right wing was given much service. Someone on the bench should have noticed the change in the efficacy of Brazil’s attack once they used the rest of the field, as they should also have noticed Danilo’s constant absence from his position, but if so the message never filtered out to the players on the pitch.
When Brazil finally pulled ahead on a marvelous Neymar goal at the 105+1-minute—obtained by playing down the middle for a change—there were but fifteen minutes of regulation extra time to negotiate. Yet, Brazil’s players, who still could not accept the fact that World Cup wins are earned, sauntered around the pitch as if the game was over and ceded possession to the Croats who proceeded to produce dangerous play after dangerous play. Brazil was lucky not to concede several times during this period.
Tite could be seen on the sidelines yelling at his men to move their defensive lines up to negate the dangerous crosses that kept coming, and to slow the tempo down with possession (you know, like the Croatians were able to do the other 100 minutes of the match) but either tired legs led to deaf ears, or his players ignored him, and they ceded possession time and again. It is a hallmark of Tite’s coaching style to set a tone and strategy and then let his players figure things out on the pitch as they transpire, but all coaching risk management requires an internal switch to be set, one that automatically clicks on in the coach when a must-win game depends upon a reaction his charges are simply not managing on their own. The batteries must have worn out on that alarm clock.
At the 114:50th minute, Brazil managed to get and sustain possession deep in the right corner of the Croatian half and passed the ball among Antony, Neymar, Fred, and Danilo. Three of those players knew to keep the ball rolling on the pitch and near the lines to either maintain control and possession or have the ball go out of bounds if the Croats slid for the interception or the Brazilians needed to slide the ball out themselves because they had lost possession.
But when the ball came to Danilo, the fourth man in the quartet, the weak link, his unforced decision was to sky the ball forward well beyond his trio of teammates, and his error was immediately and easily headed downfield by the Croatian defense. End of Brazilian possession and game over!
A minute of contested possession later Croatia finally wrestled the ball away and not one of the nearby Brazilians thought defending Luka Modric just then was a priority. Modric, who was in the latter third of his side of the pitch, received the ball uncontested, and only then, when he was in possession and moving forward with purpose, did Brazil react. Finally, Casemiro ran after him to try and reach around the stellar Croat to take the ball away, something Modric evaded.
The play that the 2018 Ballon d’Or winner then began led to Bruno Petkovic’s 116th-minute strike which ricocheted off Marquinho’s thigh and over the outstretched hands of the diving Alisson who could not recover in time to address the redirected shot. The draw so disheartened the Brazilians that thereafter they were barely able to sustain a meaningful possession let alone an attack, and thus the teams headed to penalties minutes later.
The penalty shootout was a formality as the Croatians have this aspect of the game as their “secret” specialty, one might have heard, and were both buoyed by their comeback and by the fact that their keeper, Livakovic, had just performed a miracle in ousting the Japanese in a…wait for it…penalty shootout. The Croatians thus went into the penalty shootout feeling on top of the world—they had achieved their objective, to tip the scales their way. Brazil, in shock that the game had been tied, were unable to recover by the time penalties had to be taken.
Croatia had the first penalty and converted while Brazil’s Rodrygo had the second and shot poorly for an easy Livakovic save. After exchanging two scored penalties each, Croatian League player Mislav Orsic scored his penalty while PSG starter Marquinhos’ shot hit the post. Croatia did not have to take any further shots. Oh, by the way, Brazilian penalty specialist, Neymar, never got a chance to take his. Given Livakovic’s form and the unquestioned necessity to put balls past him for all the obvious reasons, Ney not taking an early penalty seemed a…well not optimal strategy.
Tite must have also forgotten what region of the world his team was playing in and the nether gods stepped in to remind him. The spirit of that hubris that saw Spain eliminated from the 2022 World Cup seemed to have set a “Samarran reunion” at the Education City Stadium. At the appointed time, the spirit found a home in the minds and legs of the Brazilian players. Once it took hold all the gods needed was a dull instrument to puncture that recklessly excessive Brazilian pride, and Danilo obliged.
Who is sticking his tongue out and flapping his hands by his face now?
Photo: Brazil’s weak link, Danilo, Shutterstock ID: 1775995088, by Cristiano Barni.