Is this the end for Neymar? From World Cup legend to loser in 10 minutes
This was supposed to be the night that changed it all for Neymar, the night that solidified his legacy.
For years, he'd been compared to the greats, but had never quite been considered among them. He's missing something, his critics said. We all know what that something is.
Because, for all of his talent, goals and trophies, Brazilians are defined by World Cups. The greats all won one, at least one. Neymar had yet to come close.
And then came his moment, that career-defining moment that pushed his country towards that little gold trophy that has eluded him for his entire career. As he wiggled his way through the Croatia defence before tucking the ball into the back of the net, the overarching thought was "there it is". He'd equaled Pele's goal record of 77 and, more importantly, given Brazil an extra-time winner in a World Cup quarter-final.
For years, Neymar has been waiting for a World Cup moment to define his legacy and, on Friday night at Education City Stadium, he'd finally done it.
So how did it all go wrong in a matter of minutes? How could things collapse so quickly and so cruelly that Neymar, the man that had seemingly cemented himself as a legend, found himself crying uncontrollable tears just moments later? How can someone go from so high to so low? How can legacies be defined when narratives change so rapidly?
It wasn't meant to end like this 🥺 pic.twitter.com/VNY5MsGrMy— GOAL (@goal) December 9, 2022
From a national hero to the footnote of an epic Croatian win all in a span of 10 minutes. How cruel can this sport be?
Nothing could stop his tears after Croatia's progression was confirmed. He lay on the ground for a while, before attempting to walk it off. His teammates, the very same ones that had mobbed him at the corner flag after his spectacular goal moments before, couldn't console him.
This was pain felt by all of Brazil, of course, but also a unique one felt by him alone. He's the one chasing legendary status, after all. He's the one competing with icons every single day of his life.
Because of that, this was a new low.
The others are easy to remember. The 2014 World Cup injury, the 2015 Copa America suspension. Missing the 2019 Copa altogether after Brazil crashed out of the 2018 World Cup.
This one might hurt worse than them all, though.
Mostly, that's because it was all set to be a storybook night. He'd equaled Pele as the man himself watched on amid a week of rumors surrounding his own health. Now, no Brazilian has scored more than Neymar. It all felt so fitting.
Within moments of his dazzling goal, Croatia were right back in it. Brazil, quite simply, fell asleep and the streetwise underdogs pounced, paving the way for penalties.
Neymar never got to take one, another aspect of this disaster that will only add to the heartbreak. All he could do is watch Rodrygo and Marquinhos fail from the spot. The helplessness of it all. A player that has often carried Brazil on his back could do nothing to save this night.
And each of those missed penalty kicks, fairly or unfairly, will have a massive impact on how he is remembered.
Neymar didn't even get to take a penalty 💔 pic.twitter.com/BHZcKAV80I— GOAL (@goal) December 9, 2022
That international legacy is complicated and, according to the man himself, there may not be many more chances to fix it.
"I think it's [Qatar 2022] my last World Cup," the Paris Saint-Germain star said last year in DAZN's documentary, Neymar & The Line Of Kings, and he gave new life to those retirement rumours at full-time on Friday night.
"I see it as my last because I don't know if I have the strength of mind to deal with football any more.
"So I'll do everything to turn up well, do everything to win with my country, to realise my greatest dream since I was little. And I hope I can do it."
He wasn't able to. Instead, more tears, much like in 2014 when he and Brazil were unable to claim the trophy on home soil.
Now, his place in collective footballing memory will be left in the hands of his supporters and critics alike. It's all so complicated: the goals, the trophies, the diving, the theatrics, the move to PSG, the crying, all of it. Few modern players divide opinions quite like Neymar. That won't change any time soon.
It all could have been so simple, though. With a World Cup trophy in hand, it would have been undeniable. Instead, the world is left wondering if he'll ever get another chance.
This may have been his best opportunity yet. This Brazil team felt like a juggernaut loaded with talent all over the field. But this is football, where even juggernauts can fall.
Will Neymar be able to muster the strength to try again? Does he care to? Is it fair for Brazil or the rest of the world to ask him to?
We'll see if he rises again for one last push, one final chance to change the narrative. But, if this was a last act, what a sad goodbye it would be.
In the end, the tears did stop. Neymar was finally consoled by someone that somehow got through to him: Ivan Perisic's son. The child gave Neymar a hug and then darted back towards his father to rejoin Croatia's celebrations.
Neymar, meanwhile, walked the other way, down the dark tunnel into the bowels of the stadium. One has to wonder if it felt too painful for him to look back.