DOHA –Brazil delivered an ominous message to their World Cup rivals with a dazzling display of attacking brilliance to dismantle South Korea 4-1, and set up a quarter-final against Croatia, who overcame a Japan 3-1 on post-match penalties following a 1-1 draw in normal play.
Neymar made a goal scoring return to action after injury at Stadium 974, but Brazil’s superstar was only one element of a devastating performance that ripped South Korea to shreds and settled this last-16 game well before half-time.
Vinicius Junior set the tone with a composed penalty-area finish from Raphinha’s cross after seven minutes, and Neymar doubled Brazil’s advantage from the spot six minutes later for a foul on Richarlison.
It was Neymar’s 76th goal for Brazil, leaving him just one behind the legendary Pele’s all-time record.
It was a still and sultry night in Qatar’s capital; the grass a little greasy to the touch, the stadium bouncing and jiving, the football from a brighter and less troubled world.
And there were times when watching Brazil’s symphonic demolition of South Korea when it was briefly possible to leave behind earthly cares, partake of the simpler pleasures in life, lose oneself in the pure, riotous joy of football.
Brazil really were that good on the day. For the first 40 minutes, as they waltzed and wove their way to a four‑goal lead, they played the sort of football that hasn’t been exhibited from them for many years: special-effects football, computer-game football, football so filthy you needed a cigarette and a shower after watching it.
For 40 minutes Neymar and Richarlison and Raphinha and Vinícius Júnior and Lucas Paquetá blazed little triangles, quadrilaterals, shapes that didn’t have a name yet, shapes embroidered and gilded with wicked flicks and outrageous stepovers, crowned with the choreographed dances they have been preparing for months in advance.
The crowd bayed for more, not because they wanted to see the Koreans humiliated, but because how could you possibly want something this fun to end? It was a reminder, perhaps, that while football may have been invented on the public school playing fields of England, it was perfected on the pampas and praias of Brazil. And it was possible to imagine, watching on a hospital television somewhere in Sao Paulo, an 82-year-old cancer patient offering a quiet nod of approval at this hypnotic whirl of yellow shirts.
Afterwards, Brazil’s players gathered up a banner bearing a single word: “PELE!” It was respectful and restrained, fitting and stirring: everything, in other words, that their preposterous Neymar tribute eight years ago was not. Perhaps this is a Brazil side that are not only inspired by their history, but have learned from it too.
And so, will this be 2002 or 1982? There will be no grace for Brazil in leaving Qatar as beautiful losers. None of this means anything unless they win. The tightly-wound fist of Croatia, who await them in the quarter-finals, will offer an entirely different flavour of test to the cavalier and exhausted South Korea. There remains a qualm or two about the defending, with Paik Seung‑ho claiming a late consolation and Alisson required to make at least two magnificent saves. But really, this was no time for cold realities.