The World Cup followed the screenplay Neymar and Brazil had written for it for ten minutes. A moment deserving of capping any victory has been produced by the world’s best footballing nation. Neymar’s magnificent solo goal would have been the turning point, the moment when Brazil proved they had the fortitude to go with the gold, if the Hexa dream had actually come true in Doha next Sunday.
Croatia instead left Brazil reflecting on what Neymar had failed to accomplish. Misses during regular time and the unpaid penalty. Football’s most expensive player no longer has the opportunity to establish his or her career.
The unpalatable fact is that Neymar’s position in the annals of the game may now be that. In order to emerge from Lionel Messi’s shadow, establish himself as one of the finest players on the planet, and be his own man, he spent $263 million to join Paris Saint-Germain. Although Luka Modric, Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo have all experienced times when they stole the show on the greatest stage, he has always been that. Neymar hasn’t played for Barcelona since leaving the club where he created La Remontada and was a member when he won the Olympic gold medal in 2016.
On Friday, he might have, but Croatia’s first shot on goal, Bruno Petkovic’s shanked attempt that bounced off Marquinhos and beyond Alisson’s glove, ripped it out of his hands. The magnificent goal that appeared to have broken the Croatians’ resistance would not have been able to tie the game for Croatia if there were any points awarded for artistic value in sports.
Neymar picked up the ball outside the box, handed it to Lucas Paqueta, and he continued. Neymar overcame Borna Sosa’s attempt to bring him down. Even though the outstanding Dominik Livakovic was trying to close him down, he managed to get by the goalkeeper. Neymar simply lifted the ball over two helpless defenders who had thrown themselves to the ground to stop him from rolling the ball into the goal.
It was not only the winning goal of the competition and the ideal manner for Neymar to pass Pele as the leading scorer in his nation’s history, but it was also a retort to much of the vitriol directed at him. How could you claim that he is defeated too quickly because he refused to be diverted by Sosa’s challenge? To be fit for Brazil’s knockout rounds, he overcame an ailment that at the very least seemed to have taken away much of the focus he had displayed with PSG this season.
Should Neymar’s opportunity be stolen by a single Croatian counterpunch and a few well-placed penalties? Maybe not. But because it is the pinnacle of top athletics, they do. The focus is now on the earlier moments when he could have won the game without needing the additional 30 minutes, which is where Croatia typically finds their aura of invincibility.
Neymar had a chance to end the game twice in the second half, but his touches were heavy or he chose the shoot rather than a better alternative. He was undeniably being outdone by Vinicius Junior. Brazil’s quick shifts out to the left wing, where he could isolate Croatian defender Josip Juranovic, were proving to be his most lethal attacking tool. He and Richarlison of Brazil both had a chance to win the game in regulation, and both were more likely to take on the heroic persona than Neymar.
But because this is Neymar’s team, he had to stay when adjustments were required. Neymar thus came up with the play that, had Croatia followed the script, would have won Brazil the game. If the game had progressed that far, he would undoubtedly be the presumed candidate to take the winning fifth penalty.
Tears were shed after Marquinhos’ attempt clattered back against the post, ending the shootout 4-2 and rendering Neymar ultimately unnecessary in the loss. There may never be a better opportunity with Brazil at this time. He will be 34 by the time of the 2026 World Cup. Even though Messi and Modric have shown that age is no barrier to brilliance, they are the exception, not the rule. Neymar’s prospects to be the best player on the best international team in the world during this tournament may have been his last great opportunity to do so (his possibilities at the club level are somewhat contingent on Kylian Mbappe’s willingness to stay in Paris). He gave a brief delivery. It was not quite enough though.