After more than 90 minutes of aggravation and exasperation, Neymar and Brazil finally broke through Costa Rica’s smothering defence.
Philippe Coutinho scored in the first minute of stoppage time, and Neymar followed up six minutes later to give Brazil a 2-0 victory over Costa Rica at the St Petersburg Stadium which leaves the five-time champions in a good position to advance to the last 16. Costa Rica, though, will be heading home.
“The responsibility is huge when you are playing for the national team,” Coutinho said. “You have to be mentally strong from the beginning until the end. We fought until the end and we were rewarded.”
Neymar dropped to his knees after the final whistle, sobbing in his hands as his team-mates surrounded him and then lifted him off the ground.
“We know he had a difficult injury, he went through a very bad patch,” Coutinho said, referring to Neymar breaking a bone in his right foot four months ago. “But his joy at being on the pitch is contagious.”
With just over ten minutes remaining, Neymar fell backwards to the ground after trying to cut across Costa Rica defender Giancarlo Gonzalez in the box to initially earn a penalty.
However, the contact was so exaggerated that referee Bjorn Kuipers reversed the call after using video review. Neymar then angrily punched the ball a short time later as Costa Rica’s players tried to waste time. That earned Brazil’s talisman a yellow card.
“The joy, the satisfaction and the pride of representing the national team is a lot,” said Brazil coach Tite, pictured, defending Neymar. “He has the responsibility, the pressure. Everyone shows it in their own way.”
With Neymar still short of his best following the foot injury, Brazil once again turned to Coutinho for inspiration.
He was at the heart of Brazil’s best moves and kept the tempo going with his crisp passing and darting runs.
As the game looked to be heading for a draw, Coutinho was first to beat Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas. Rising superbly to meet a Marcelo’s cross, Roberto Firmino nodded the ball down to striker Gabriel Jesus, who then flicked it to Coutinho who poked the ball home through Navas’ legs
In the seventh minute of injury time, Douglas Costa whipped in a cross from the right and Neymar deftly tapped it into the net for his 56th international goal to move third on Brazil’s all-time scorers’ list, behind Pele (77) and Ronaldo (62).
Both Firmino and Costa had come on as substitutes in the second half and each made a difference.
“I think Brazil’s changes made an impact,” Costa Rica coach Oscar Ramirez said. “It became very difficult for us.”
After a drab and scrappy first half, Brazil came out energised and the chances piled up. Jesus put a header on to the crossbar, and Neymar’s hurried shot curled wide.
In Brazil’s opening 1-1 draw against Switzerland, Neymar had been fouled ten times, sometimes harshly. But he was also in theatrical mode against Costa Rica, tumbling over dramatically when touched.
“We never tried to hurt him,” Ramirez said. “We tried to play fairly but stop him fairly as well.”
Referee Kuipers twice waved away Neymar’s claims for fouls in the first half.
He also ignored a Brazilian claim for a penalty after midfielder Paulinho bounced off defender Oscar Duarte contesting a high ball. Several players, including Neymar and Marcelo, complained to Kuipers at the end of the first half. Once again, he just waved them away.
“We don’t need referees decisions to win a game,” Tite said. “Brazil doesn’t need any help.”
Tite was himself left hobbling after he hurt himself celebrating Coutinho’s late strike, the 57-year-old tumbling onto the pitch during the celebrations among Brazil’s squad and coaches.
“It kind of pulled a muscle – it tore some fibres, I think,” he said in the post-match press conference.
“I’m limping during the celebration! Ederson and Cassio were there and I was like ‘whoa, I’m hurt’. I was going to celebrate with them but I had to limp back!”