By TALES AZZONI
AP Sports Writer
AL RAYYAN, Qatar (AP) — Neymar walked off the field with teammate Dani Alves by his side, tears still rolling down the Brazil forward’s cheeks.
Other players had already tried to console Neymar as he cried while sitting near midfield, head down, hiding his face.
There wasn’t much they could say to get the team’s biggest star to lift his head up.
Again there was disappointment instead of joy at the end of a World Cup for Neymar. Again he couldn’t lead Brazil to a major title.
It was his third failure at a World Cup, and his only triumphs with the national team are the 2013 Confederations Cup and the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, when Brazil won its first gold medal in soccer.
Neymar said it wasn’t the time to talk about his future with the national team.
“Honestly, I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s hard to talk about it right now,” he said. “It would be too hasty to come here and say that this is it, but I can’t guarantee anything. I have to take some time to think about it. I’m not closing any doors to the Seleção, but I’m also not saying 100% that I want to be back.”
Neymar scored Friday to move level with Pelé as Brazil’s all-time leading scorer with 77 goals, but the Seleção ended up losing to Croatia 4-2 in a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals after the match finished 1-1 after extra time.
Neymar never had a chance to take a penalty after Rodrygo and Marquinhos missed their spot kicks.
“He would have taken the fifth penalty,” Brazil coach Tite said. “That’s the one with the most pressure, and he would be the player with the most quality and mental preparedness to take the shot.”
Neymar scored his goal in extra time with a right-footed shot after getting through the defense and dribbling past the Croatia goalkeeper to match Pelé’s record. He entered the tournament two goals shy of the milestone, and scored his 76th in the round of 16 against South Korea after returning from an ankle injury.
The 82-year-old Pelé showed his support to Neymar from his hospital bed in Brazil, where he was improving while being treated for a respiratory infection that was aggravated by COVID-19.
“I saw you grow, I cheered for you every day and I can finally congratulate you for reaching my number of goals with Brazil. We both know that this is more than a figure,” he wrote on Instagram. “Our biggest duty as athletes is to inspire. Inspire our teammates of today, the next generations and, above all, everyone who loves our sport.
“Unfortunately, this is not the happiest day for us,” Pelé added. “My record was set almost 50 years ago, and nobody had managed to get near it until now. You got there, kid. That shows how great your achievement is.”
Brazil was close to returning to the semifinals for the first time since 2014, but instead Neymar looked in anguish from midfield as Croatia substitute Bruno Petkovic equalized in the 117th minute.
Neymar also didn’t play in the last four of the tournament that Brazil hosted eight years ago. He suffered a serious back injury in the quarterfinals against Colombia and then saw his teammates lose 7-1 to Germany.
The 30-year-old Neymar scored his 77 goals in 124 matches for Brazil. Pelé’s goals came in 92 appearances with the national team between 1957 and 1971.
Ronaldo, a World Cup winner with Brazil in 2002, is third on the list with 62 goals in 98 matches.
Pelé won three World Cups, including when he was 17 years old in the 1958 tournament. He also helped Brazil win the World Cup in 1962 and 1970.
Neymar first played for Brazil as an 18-year-old in 2010. He is the only other Brazil player other than Pelé and Ronaldo to score in three different World Cups.
Neymar damaged ligaments in his ankle in Brazil’s opening win against Serbia, and his participation in the rest of the tournament was in doubt because of the injury. He made it back to the starting lineup after missing two group games, and played about 80 minutes in Brazil’s 4-1 win over South Korea on Monday.
The forward has had right ankle problems in the past, being among a series of injuries since the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Another right ankle sprain forced him to miss the 2019 Copa América, which Brazil won.
Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni