Analysis-Soccer-European curse stings Brazil again at World Cup

Brazilian fans react during the FIFA World Cup 2022 match between Brazil and Croatia, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil December 9, 2022. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

AL RAYYAN, Qatar (Reuters) - Brazil are going home empty handed after they suffered yet another heartbreaking World Cup exit to a European rival -- and the quarter-final defeat by Croatia will hurt as they let victory slip through their fingers just three minutes from the final whistle.

When Neymar put the South Americans ahead with a spectacular effort in the first half of extra time, Brazilian fans all over the world were left rejoicing.

However, with the semi-final showdown with either Argentina or the Netherlands looming, Tite's men let their guards down and allowed Croatia to score an equaliser from a counter-attack with three minutes left in extra-time.

After looking outstanding in their 4-1 win against South Korea in their last-16 match, they had a hard time breaking the deadlock against Croatia on Friday.

However, a moment of magic from Neymar in which he penetrated an unbreakable Croatian wall following a brilliant one-two exchange with his team mate culminated in him scoring one of the goals of the tournament -- an effort which drew him level with Pele's Brazilian record of 77 goals.

It was a goal that would probably have made the great Pele, who is is battling cancer in a Sao Paulo hospital, proud.

It looked like the end of a 20-year curse, with Brazil having won the last of their record five World Cup titles in 2002.

After being knocked out in 2006 by France, 2010 by the Netherlands, suffering a 7-1 semi-final humilliation on home soil by Germany in 2014 and being beaten by Belgium four years later, Brazil were on the verge of proving to themselves that they once again possessed the mindset to beat their European rivals on the biggest stage.

They were winning 1-0. Three minutes from time. And instead of keeping possession and counting down the clock, they aggressively went on the attack and kept their defence unguarded.

Luka Modric capitalised on this opening and linked up with his team mates as the Croatians took advantage of their one and only shot on target to stretch the game into penalties.

As a shirtless Bruno Petkovic celebrated his improbable goal, the crowd looked stunned while the stadium's giant screens replayed the action showing four Brazilian players still in Croatia's half when the substitute striker scored.

An unforgivable tactical and mental breakdown ended up costing them the win that they had fought resiliently to achieve throughout the match.

In the end, the shock of conceding the late equaliser proved too much for Brazil's stunned players who simply crumbled in the shootout.

Dominik Livakovic made more saves against Brazil on Friday than the Brazilian goalkeepers had in total in the entire competition.

Brazil were true to their identity even when Croatia seemed to be comfortable sitting back and letting their rivals circulate the ball around their box.

Tite kept his five-man up-front tactics for the entire match and managed to hold Croatia without a shot on target for 117 minutes.

Friday's defeat will be a tough one to swallow as in many people's eyes - it boils down to one childish mistake when victory was within Brazil's grasp.

(Reporting by Fernando Kallas, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

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