The fans at the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo got what they wanted, but they’d know deep inside that this wasn’t how they wanted it.
Brazil, the home team and the most popular football team in the universe, began their 2014 World Cup campaign against a team they had played in similar circumstances back in the 2006 World Cup. Croatia are a well-drilled outfit and quick on the break, and they were never going to hand it away easily even without star striker Mario Mandzukic. Eventually, it was the much-celebrated home team that scored all the four goals in the match—including their first-ever own goal in the history of World Cup play (Marcelo)—and none of them except the stoppage time insurance goal by Man of the Match Oscar were convincing. After falling behind quickly, Brazil’s favourite son Neymar managed to slot home weakly into the low right corner to beat keeper Pletikosa to equalize before the half-hour mark. They were far from convincing, and only Oscar looked the part.
But it was in the second half that Japanese fans felt a deep sense of shame. Referee Nishimura concluded that Lovren’s light touch to Fred—who reproduced a bout of playacting comparable to that of Rivaldo eight years ago—was worthy of a penalty. Neymar stepped up and slotted home another weak shot, and even though Pletikosa guessed correctly, he couldn’t keep it out. Brazil were 2-1 ahead finally, after pressing for most of the second half, but not with their trademark flare and style. Neymar’s brace was nothing more than mere numbers on the board, and another night, the 22 year old would have been substituted at halftime. But Scolari stuck to a team that had given him the Confederations Cup a year ago, and his team was further rewarded after a controversial rebound equalizer by Perisic in the 83rd minute was disallowed by the Japanese referee. Apparently, Olic had fouled goalkeeper Cesar, who was only too relieved to not have another own-goal against his name. A final glimpse of real football came when Oscar converted on the break in the final minutes from the edge of the penalty area. Just like that, the home team—not traditionally strong starters to World Cup tournaments—had their first win on the board in a match that could have easily slipped out of their hands before halftime.
Croatia have every right to feel enraged after challenging the home team to the final minute, and deserved nothing less than a draw. But they will live to fight another day, just like they did in 2006 after losing their first group game. They will play Cameroon in four days, after Brazil face Mexico in Fortaleza.
Many believe that Neymar has set the marker for the rest of the tournament, standing toe to toe with superstars like Messi and Ronaldo. In reality, there is more pressure on his young shoulders in home conditions, because an entire team of talent revolves around him. “Pass it to Neymar” is a strategy when nothing is going right, and when nothing was going right against Croatia, Neymar had to pass it to Nishimura. The youngster was about as convincing as an ageing Ronaldo in the 2002 tournament, where goals just fell at his feet as a signing-off present, and not due to his own piercing abilities.
Brazil have a lot to think about despite the scoreline. Scolari was already vary and wasn’t too happy with practice sessions—and much of that makes sense now. Nevertheless, they are expected to pick up at the right moments, and it will be hard to imagine them losing a game in this group after seeing off their toughest opponents.