Brazil will face Croatia in the World Cup quarter-finals on Friday after knocking out South Korea with a 4-1 win at Stadium 974.
The Koreans, whose comebacks against Ghana and Portugal were among the most stirring sights of the group stage, were effectively beaten in the first 12 minutes, after Vinicius Jr and Neymar, with a penalty, put Brazil 2-0 ahead.
This was the kind of dominant performance Brazil were looking for after a group stage in which they outplayed Serbia and Switzerland but scored only three goals, before losing with their reserve side to Cameroon.
It was Brazil’s most emphatic victory at the World Cup since they beat Cameroon 4-1 in the last group game in 2014, a run stretching back 13 matches in which they had never scored more than two goals.
The only pity is there were not more people in the stadium to see it. Brazil have traditionally been the biggest draw at the World Cup, but that’s not how it is here in Qatar. Lionel Messi and Argentina have packed out every stadium, but Neymar and Brazil played here to what looked like the crowd at a friendly against Lithuania at the Aviva.
These stadiums have a way of filling up in the minutes after kick-off as more people mysteriously appear – latecomers? seat-fillers? The effect is more obvious in the cheaper seats than the VIP section over the halfway line. By the quarter-hour mark there were merely a few thousand empties dotted around the stadium.
By then Brazil were already 2-0 up, starting the game as though determined to show those who should have been in those empty seats what they were missing.
Vinicius scored the first on seven minutes, arriving at the back post on to a Raphinha cross which had run all the way through a crowded box, and staying cool as several Korean defenders rushed at him to curl a wonderfully precise shot into the top corner.
On 12 minutes Brazil were awarded a penalty after Richarlison was brought down in the box. Neymar placed the ball and waited more than a minute while the referee bustled around the area fussing over details. There was then a game of chicken between Neymar and Kim Seung-Gyu. Neymar’s question-mark-shaped run-up was slow - and his low shot hardly moved any faster – but it still rolled in, as Kim crumpled pointlessly in the middle of the goal. He had tried to wait until Neymar took the shot, but then found himself unable to react.
If you have ever watched penalties going into the middle of the goal and wondered why goalkeepers usually dive instead of waiting to see what happens, watch this penalty for the answer. Even jumping out of the way looks better than standing there apparently doing nothing as a harmless-looking shot rolls in. A goalkeeper has to be seen to be doing something.
At the other end, Alisson Becker had done nothing at all yet because he hadn’t touched the ball – but five minutes later Hwang Hee-Chan’s fierce shot gave him the chance to make a spectacular save.
The Korean ultras kept up their determined singing but Brazil were now in a ruthless mood and on 29 minutes Richarlison scored a beautiful third.
He held off defenders while juggling the ball on his head to bring it under control, turned, played a pass to Marquinhos inside the box and ran for goal. Marquinhos passed across the 18 yard line to Thiago Silva, whose first-time pass was perfectly weighted to meet Richarlison’s third-man run. The Korean defence was cracked open by Brazil’s movement and timing, Richarlison’s low finish was the easiest thing about the goal.
The fourth was a lovely sweeping counterattack involving Richarlison and Neymar before Vinicius chipped a clever cross into the centre for the arriving Paqueta to volley low into the corner.
Paqueta missed another chance just before half-time, before Richarlison broke through on the right of the box, but shot and missed instead of passing to the centre, earning himself a long, hard stare from Neymar.
You felt sorry for South Korea at this point and wondered how bad the beating would get, but Brazil in the second half had already started to save themselves for the quarter-final. Maybe they were already thinking of it when Son Heung-Min broke through on the left into a great scoring position, only to be denied by another great save by Alisson.
The exception, perhaps, was Neymar, whose re-emergence after half-time despite his well-publicised ankle problems showed how eager he is to start making his own mark on this World Cup. It’s bad enough to be outshone by Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé, but when even Richarlison has three goals and you have contributed only one penalty and, it turns out, can’t even fill Stadium 974, the pressure is on to perform. He stayed on until the 80th minute, but there were to be no more goals for Brazil.
There was, at least, one great goal left in this World Cup for South Korea, Paik Seung-Ho finally beating Alisson with a left-footed rocket that flew in from 25 yards.
Brazil will face Croatia feeling like the strong favourites they are, and who knows, there might even be a crowd worthy of the occasion.