Croatia stunned favourites Brazil 4-2 on penalties on Friday to reach the World Cup semi-finals for the second time in a row after battling back from a goal down in extra time, in one of the biggest knockout-phase upsets in the tournament’s history.
The 2018 runners-up came through their second straight shootout after beating Japan on penalties in the last 16 and will now face either the Netherlands or Argentina, who were playing each other in the later game.
In an evening filled with tension and drama, Brazil superstar Neymar thought he had won it for the five-time champions when he rifled in an extra-time goal.
But Brazil were punished for letting their guard down, with substitute Bruno Petkovic drilling in an 117th-minute equaliser with their one and only shot on target, breaking Brazilian hearts in the Education City Stadium.
The Croats, who needed two shootouts and an extra-time win to reach the final in 2018 and now have a perfect four-out-of-four record in World Cup penalty shootouts, kept their composure as Brazil’s Marquinhos and Rodrygo failed to convert.
“This is just for the Croatian people,” said coach Zlatko Dalic. “A great match from the first minute to the last. We eliminated the biggest favourites. This is not the end for us, let’s keep going.”
“This is a victory for all of us, everyone gave their best. Thanks also to those on the bench, who also live for this national team.”
“I am overjoyed that we, with a 3-1/2 million population, are entering the semi-finals for the second time in a row. I will tell everyone now to say ‘We are not normal’.”
Croatia refused to be intimidated by their more illustrious opponents, and in the first half successfully stifled most Brazil moves.
Apart from a weak Vinicius Jr. shot, Brazil had little to offer in terms of attack with Neymar off the pace and shut out by a hard-working backline.
It was Croatia who looked sharper, more skilled in their passing game and with a precise game plan, and by the end of the first half they had the upper hand in terms of possession.
The Brazilians, whose last win over a European opponent in the knockout phase came in their 2002 final victory over Germany, enjoy a stronger start after the break with Croatia defender Josko Gvardiol almost scoring an own goal.
Neymar came even closer in the 55th when he was sent through by Richarlison but keeper and man-of-the-match Dominik Livakovic blocked it.
The Brazilians, who have now lost four of their last five World Cup quarter-finals, all to European opposition, missed another chance in the 66th when Lucas Paqueta was denied by Livakovic.
The Croatia keeper was kept busy and again stopped Neymar in the 76th, having by that time amassed more saves in the match (seven) than his Brazil counterpart, Alisson, had in the entire tournament (five).
He then parried another Paqueta shot five minutes later as the few hundred Brazil fans in the stands grew louder and more impatient and the game ticked over into extra time, with Brazil coach Tite visibly nervous.
In stoppage time in the first period, Neymar launched an attack outside the box, played two consecutive one-twos to bamboozle the tired Croatian defence and then rounded the keeper and fired in to equal Brazil great Pele’s record of 77 international goals.
But the Croats did not give in and instead snatched a late Petkovic equaliser.
They then came out on top in the shootout, scoring all their spot kicks while Livakovic first saved Rodrygo’s effort and then Marquinhos hit the post on the fourth kick, reducing Neymar and his team mates to tears.
“It is hard to have words at the moment there,” said Brazil captain Thiago Silva.
“When we lose something important that we had as a goal, it hurts a lot. Unfortunately as a player, I won’t be able to raise this cup,” said the 38-year-old.
Croatia, by contrast, can dream again of picking up their first world title.