SAO PAULO - Through the empty corner sections of the stands, fireworks could be seen flashing in the sky over Sao Paulo. The vast majority of the fans in the stadium went home in a celebratory mood. This was, for Brazil, for FIFA, for everybody concerned with the smooth running of the World Cup and the eventual coronation of Neymar in the Maracana in a month’s time, the perfect start to the tournament.
It was also utterly scandalous. Referees make mistakes. Nobody should get too exercised about one bad decision, not even one as obviously wrong as the penalty, for a supposed tug by Dejan Lovren on Fred, that allowed Neymar to give Brazil a 71st-minute lead, en route to a 3-1 win to open Group A play in the 2014 World Cup.
What they should get worked up about was the obvious pattern. Let’s be generous and say Yuichi Nishimura, the Japanese referee, was overwhelmed by the occasion, but his was a performance so bad it made you believe in conspiracies, or at least that Nishimura was swayed by some sort of (misplaced) guilt, having sent off Felipe Melo for a stamp on Arjen Robben when Brazil lost to the Netherlands in the quarterfinal four years ago.
Every 50-50 decision went Brazil’s way, every little nudge by a Croatian was penalized, a number of strong challenges by Brazilians were not. Niko Kovac, Croatia's manager, was calm, but clearly furious.
“If anybody saw it as a penalty anywhere in the stadium let them raise their hand,” he said. “I cannot. If we continue in this vein then there will be 100 penalties in this World Cup. It was never a penalty: it was ridiculous. Brazil and Croatia played a great opening match, but the referee was completely out of his depth.
"It doesn’t have anything to do with that particular referee but with the fact that we are here in Brazil and Brazil are huge favorites to win the World Cup. Whenever you play somewhere the hosts might have an advantage, but we are playing football – the rules of the game apply to both teams. FIFA's slogan is ‘respect’ – respect for both teams and this is what we are after. If we continue in this way we will have a circus. I am not the sort of person to blame referees but we are the first to play Brazil so I have to say it: things have to improve.”
The Brazil coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, was typically pugnacious.
“The referee said it was a penalty. It’s up to the referees,” he said. “They must decide and we think it was a penalty. I saw it 10 times, but I think it was a penalty.”
Kovac didn’t mention it, but another official might easily have sent Neymar off before he’d scored the equalizer, for thrusting a forearm into Luka Modric’s throat. The Barcelona player clearly glanced at the Real Madrid midfielder before extending him arm, his only defense – and it’s a flimsy one – that there was little force in the swing as he made contact.
Many referees would probably have given a foul for the Olic challenge on Julio Cesar in the build-up to what might have been a late Croatia equalizer, but with Nishimura there was no doubt.
Although he scored two goals, Neymar’s general contribution was fitful as he repeatedly seemed to try to do too much. This is supposed to be his tournament: even Scolari makes no secret of the fact that the country is awaiting his coronation. Neymar had been relaxed, impressively so, on Wednesday in the pre-match press-conference, but during the game he seemed determined to do too much, the result being that Brazil became predictable and Croatia was able to negate his threat relatively comfortably.
There was one dart past Ivan Rakitic and a smart cutback and then the opening goal – a slightly fortuitous shot that he didn’t catch cleanly and went through Lovren’s legs before going in the low right corner – but by far the more effective player was Oscar.
The Chelsea forward won the ball and laid in Neymar for that equalizer, and thrived in the spaces on the right flank as Neymar attracted Croatian bodies into the middle. He’d earlier laid on a chance for Paulinho, while generally playing with a sort of minimalist menace, appearing only occasionally on the fringes of the Neymar show, but looking hugely effective when he did so. His strength to hold off Lovren – perhaps a little cautious having already been booked – was as impressive as the toe-poked shot that recalled Romario in his pomp.
As well as the overreliance on Neymar, the predictable weakness behind the fullbacks was exposed, particularly in the opening half hour. Neither Dani Alves not Marcelo excel defensively, and even before Ivica Olic had got behind Alves to lay in the cross that brought the first goal, Ivan Perisic had created an opportunity for Olic.
Kovac spoke of a plan to spread the play from flank to flank to take advantage of the space behind the fullbacks, and it’s significant that with both the goal and the Olic chance, it was the fullback from the opposite flank who ended up marking the intended recipient.
If Brazil is to go on to win the World Cup, it will need significant improvement. It can’t always rely on referees to be so accommodating. Or at least, you hope it can’t.