After tying its opener and enduring 90 minutes of deadlock against an underdog Costa Rica, the World Cup favorites Brazil scored twice in stoppage time to secure a badly needed victory. Cue the armchair psychologists. Was Neymar’s reaction to the final whistle an emotional response to his first goal in the tournament? A release valve for the pressure of being one of the world’s best players on its biggest stage? For the pressure of leading the tournament favorites? The pressure of being Brazil?
Or maybe he was just glad he’d survived this game with his reputation more or less intact. Brazil’s relief at finally scoring—its backup goalkeeper was so excited after the first goal he knocked the manager down—is a testament to how Costa Rica’s defense can drive its opponents to madness. Brazil had escaped the monster, made it to the end of the horror movie alive. For an hour and a half, it looked like Brazil might be next on the list of impressive victims the Costa Ricans have racked up in World Cup play, including Uruguay, Italy, and England in 2014. And then came Coutinho’s winner.
But back to Costa Rica, whose rope-a-dope strategy is always interesting and rarely exciting. So much of its movement boils down to a horizontal shuffling back and forth across the pitch, keeping the ball in front, that watching Los Ticos can feel like watching a game of Pong, frustrated opponents sending the ball back in over and over and hoping for the best. Costa Rica lulls opponents into throwing harmless punches. It’s charming a snake, taming a lion, an 11-man collective act of hypnosis, waiting for the bad touch or the lazy horizontal ball across the lines to pounce on the counter.
This wouldn’t work if Costa Rica didn’t have one of the world’s best goalkeepers to bail them out when the system fails and the dangerous creature they’ve been subduing snaps to attention. Keylor Navas was again immense, whether charging out to beat Neymar to through-balls or parrying his volleys over the bar.
Before the goal, Neymar had had a miserable day. Costa Rica clearly intended to pressure him at every opportunity and kick anything that moves in his vicinity, and if that thing happened to be the ball then that would be an added bonus. “What he can’t do is get frustrated,” said Fox’s Warren Barton, as though there was any other point to Costa Rica’s treatment of Neymar.
He did get frustrated. It took less than three minutes for Neymar to go on a mazy run through the outermost of the two Costa Rican defensive bands, the equivalent of reaching the Great Wall and thinking, “Maybe I’ll just go around.” He was chased down from behind by Costa Rican defenders. He later threw himself backward at slight contact to earn a second-half penalty, only to have it reversed by the video assistant referee.
He was perhaps lucky not to be yellow-carded for the dive; he did pick up a card later for punching the ball away in frustration after a stoppage.
His narrow miss around the top corner in the 72nd minute is like a Rorschach test for his performance: If he had been playing well, you could read it as a sign that he was getting close. Because he had been poor, however, it became another bullet point for the postgame airing of the grievances, a list that got torn up when Coutinho scored.
The Costa Rican style of play requires perfect execution every time, not every time but one. Against Serbia, it was a foul well within Aleksandar Kolarov’s range that led to the only goal. Against Brazil, one missed header and one untracked run from midfield undid 90 minutes of solid defending. (Neymar’s goal may have been a tremendous personal relief, but it was a consolation scored against a team that knew it had to at least try for the draw. Sorry, Neymar.)
Instead of claiming its biggest World Cup victory to date, Costa Rica joins Peru and Morocco on the list of teams that’s impressed only to be eliminated with zero points and zero goals after two games. Now that the Costa Rican monster has been vanquished, potential knockout round opponents can breathe a little easier, too.