Croatia Did The Impossible By Beating The Inevitable
3:17 PM EST on December 9, 2022
The premise of Brazil's attempt to win the World Cup was inevitability. They were specially designed to win any kind of match they might find themselves in. If you let Brazil play their preferred high-speed, high-intensity, all-action game, they would melt you like ice cream under the summer sun. If you managed to slow the game down and block the open paths the Brazilians love to bomb into, then they'd squeeze you like a python, until the struggle for every breath was so physically taxing that your defenses would drop and Brazil would land the killing blow. If you somehow resisted even that suffocating grip for an hour or more, then Brazil would bide its time, freshen its attack with its unparalleled forward depth, and wait until one of those geniuses found the trap door through which they could sneak the ball into the goal. Don't even think about trying to attack Brazil, because no matter what you tried—possession game, counter-attacking game, long balls, short interplays—the Brazilian defense, the team's single strongest sector, would thwart it all. Brazil came into this tournament with answers to every question, and the concomitant sense that victory was assured. But nothing in the World Cup is inevitable, as Croatia taught Brazil by beating them in today's quarterfinal.
There are a few contradictory truths about Croatia's colossal upset of Brazil that demonstrate what a weird and wonderful game soccer is. On one hand, Croatia played a great match, imposing on the game the pace they prefer and making Brazil uncomfortable throughout. On the other, Brazil was almost never under much real threat; they created more than a winning share of chances to score, and from beginning to end the match followed one of the exact patterns Brazil was made to solve. Twice already at this World Cup Brazil faced a similar challenge to the one posed by Croatia. Both times—the group matches against Serbia and Switzerland—Brazil endured the discomfortingly stellar defending of the opponent, kept squeezing and squeezing, and eventually found the winning goal.
The Croatia match was very similar to the Serbia and Switzerland matches. Croatia did a heroic job preventing Brazil from getting the clear spaces in which they are unstoppable, as seen when they steamrolled South Korea in the round of 16. This feat was principally performed by Croatia's world-class midfield trio of Marcelo Brozovic, Mateo Kovacic, and Luka Modric. Modric was especially fantastic. It was his ability to move all over the pitch to be exactly where the play needed him, and to protect the ball and send it exactly where it needed to go, that prevented Brazil from turning the match into a track meet. The Croatian midfield controlled the pace and direction of play, and by maintaining long possessions and only losing the ball in places they could afford to, Croatia never let Brazil establish the volume of lightning-fast attacks that would've otherwise overwhelmed them.
And yet Brazil still knew how to win this kind of match. Through the 90 minutes of regulation play, Brazil allowed Croatia only six shots, half of which they blocked, not one of which was on target. On the other end, Brazil took 15 shots in regulation, eight of which were on target, multiple of which were great opportunities to score. It took an MVP performance from goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic to keep Brazil off the scoreboard in regulation play, and that's just what he delivered. Nevertheless, as the match wore on and the scoreless 90 minutes turned into extra time, it felt like only a matter of time before Brazil and its small army of attacking stars would do what they were made to do and score.
Sure enough, the seemingly inevitable moment eventually did come. Neymar—who for most of the match lacked his typical spark, most likely as a lingering effect of his ankle injury earlier in the tournament—appeared in Brazil's moment of need with sensational play just before extra-time halftime. With one of the trademark wall-pass sequences that give this team wings at their best, Neymar, starting from deep in midfield, passed, moved, received, feinted, passed, moved, received, turned, and shot, scoring one of the prettiest goals of the tournament.
At that point, it felt like the story had been written. Croatia had played really well, better than they had any right to, and had bravely resisted the inevitable until inevitable's human embodiment did what he does to reassert order. But if Brazil's raison d'être was inevitability, Croatia's was possibility. They'd played a game that didn't make victory assured or even likely, but it did give them a chance. And one chance was all Croatia needed when, in the 117th minute, just three minutes from the Brazil victory everyone in the world had expected, Bruno Petkovic capped a swift counter attack with Croatia's very first shot on target of the game. The shot was deflected, but it went in.
I don't know if there's any evidence to support whether the momentum of a game at the end of extra time has any bearing on which team wins the penalty shootout, but I do know that after Croatia equalized, it seemed certain that Croatia would go on to win. Croatia won the coin toss to take the first penalty, which Nikola Vlasic scored. Rodrygo took Brazil's first spot kick, and Livakovic cemented his legendary match by saving it. Croatia converted its next three penalties, and Brazil scored its next two, before Marquinhos stepped up to the ball and sent his shot into the goalpost. Croatia resisted, battled, survived, conceded, scored, and won, beating inevitable Brazil with just one little chance.