Never, apparently, read too much into the opening game of the World Cup.
Scorers: Brazil - Neymar (29, 71pen), Oscar (90); Croatia - Marcelo (11og)
Tell that to 60,000 fans who greeted the first such tournament on home soil for over half a century by wildly celebrating a 3-1 victory over Croatia, albeit with a generous dose of help from the Japanese referee, as if they had won the big prize itself.
The last time Brazil staged the World Cup, in 1950, a 2-1 loss to Uruguay in the final ended their hopes of a winning a first world title and plunged the country into a state of national mourning. Years later the goalkeeper that day, Moacyr Barbosa, heard a woman tell her daughter: “Look, that’s the man who made all Brazil cry.”
Since then the Selecao have won five but the pressure to get off to a decent start was just as intense yesterday as it was 64 years ago, nothwithstandng the fact that you wouldn’t have even known there was a World Cup until 24 hours beforehand. Suddenly, the bunting and flags that were conspicuous by their absence appeared out of nowhere to light up this drab, sprawling city and provide some cheer to counter the street protests over the $11b that was spent on the tournament instead of much-needed public services.
Inside the brand new Arena De Sao Paulo stadium, the ambiance was very different. The sight of the arena still undergoing safety tests was more than slightly disconcerting but it nevertheless looked resplendent in a sea of yellow following a dazzling opening ceremony.
Croatia were without their most dangerous marksman Mario Mandzukic,suspended, but were not there just to make up the numbers. Their driving force was to deflate a nation of 200 million who expected not only a winning start but a sixth world crown a month from now.
No host nation has ever lost an opening match in the World Cup and 15 wins in the last 16 games, including five in a row at last year’s Confederations Cup when they hammered reigning world champions Spain, provided an ominous warning. On a gorgeous warm evening, how to contain the mercurial Neymar was only one of Croatia’s many tactical assignments against the only country to have appeared in every World Cup and who had scored 30 goals in their previous nine outings.
Croatia’s plan against Luiz Felipe Scolari’s first-choice starting lineup was to try and hurt the hosts on the counter and it almost paid off after just seven minutes when Ivica Olic met Ivan Perisic’s swinging cross but headed down and just wide.
Four minutes later, incredibly, the crowd were reduced to stunned silence as Croatia snatched the lead when Nikica Jelavic mis-timed his kick in front of goal and the ball richocheted off Marcelo’s ankle and into the net for the first goal of the tournament, in the process handing the Brazilian full back the unenviable record of being the first player from his country ever to score an own goal in the finals.
Brazil had plenty of time to regroup but Croatia’s game plan seemed to be working despite the collective wolf whistles. Stipe Pletikosa, once of Tottenham, blocked a shot by current Tottenham midfielder Paulinho, then did marvellously to turn away a curling 25-yard effort from Oscar.
Brazil had to watch their step, however, and Neymar became the first player booked in the tournament for a nasty challenge on Luka Modric, Croatia’s danger man, that led to a posse of players squaring up.
Gradually, the speed, movement and intensity lacking in the nervous early stages was bound to pay off for Brazil and so it proved after half an hour.
As dusk fell over the stadium, Oscar brilliantly found that man Neymar in space and the Barcelona striker let loose to find the base of the post and in. The place erupted into a deafening cacophony of sound.
Neymar was now in his element, drifting past two men in midfield and winning a free-kick.
Opening games are often cat-and-mouse cautious affairs but not this one.
A wonderfully entertaining first half flashed by and Croatia’s task, after all their hard work and organisation, was somehow to try and hold on to what they had.
Not that it was a foregone conclusion by any means because Brazil looked anything but comfortable at the back when Croatia broke in numbers.
As expected, Brazil’s superior possession became even more dominant but the final pass wasn’t there and the pace dropped markedly.
Were Brazil tiring? Certainly, if they were going to win it, they had to be more incisive – or have a stroke a luck. The latter came to their rescue with 20 minutes to go when Southampton’s Dejan Lovren was adjudged by the Japanese referee to have pulled back Fred.
There was precious little contact and when Neymar struck the penalty to Pletikosa’s right, the keeper got both hands to it but only succeeded in pushing it further into the net.
The Croatians will feel desperately hard done by, all the more so at having a late effort ruled out for offside in an admirable rally that had the hosts looking like nervous wrecks until Oscar brought relief all round with a breakaway third in the final minute.
Over to the other Group A contestants, Mexico and Cameroon who square off later today in Natal.
Brazil: Cesar; Alves, Silva, Luiz, Marcelo; Paulinho (Hernanes, 63), Gustavo; Hulk (Bernard 68), Oscar, Neymar (Ramirez 87); Fred.
Croatia: Pletikosa; Srna, Corluka, Lovren, Vrsaljko; Modric, Rakitic; Perisic, Kovacic (Brozovic 61), Olic; Jelavic (Rebic 78).