SAO PAULO – The lights at the Arena de Sao Paulo went out shortly after kickoff and one of the ceremonial doves, released to mark the opening of the 2014 World Cup, couldn’t find its way out and got lost in the crowd. Then, Brazil fell behind to Croatia on an early own goal. There were bad omens everywhere.
But the hosts, powered by the skillful prodigy expected to lead them, found their groove and ran out 3-1 winners. Here are three thoughts on the opening game of the 20th World Cup:
NEYMAR THE STAR
Neymar, 22, is the youngest Brazilian player to wear the fabled No. 10 jersey at a World Cup since Pelé took the field in 1962. And that’s no accident – the FC Barcelona star, who was born about an hour’s drive from the Arena de Sao Paulo, is being counted upon to lead the host nation’s charge toward a record sixth title. Whether a player of his age and temperament – he’s criticized on occasion for preferring individual flair to team chemistry – could bear the burden was a key storyline heading into the World Cup.
On Thursday, before 62,103 fans and a city so geared for the opener that fireworks were seen across the skyline when he scored his first goal, Neymar delivered.
With freedom to roam in Brazil’s 4-3-3, Neymar consistently found both the ball and the seams in the Croatian rearguard. He was inventive, fearless and ultimately effective. In the 29th, nearly 20 minutes after the hosts fell behind on a Marcelo own goal (and only three after he was shown a yellow card), Neymar picked up the ball in midfield, dragged the entire Croatian defense to his left with a couple of quick touches than hit a low, sliding shot back to the right that beat goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa.
In the 71st, Neymar scored his sixth goal in his past four internationals from the penalty spot. Fred drew the call, a bad one, when he flopped to the ground following contact with Croatia’s Dejan Lovren.
Neymar nearly had an assist in the first half and drew a yellow card on Verdan Corluka in the second. But ultimately, if the Selecao is to meet its mandate, Neymar must find the net. So far, so good.
Over its past three major tournaments – the 2010 World Cup, the 2011 Copa América and the 2013 Confederations Cup – Brazil trailed for a combined 45 minutes. How would it respond if it fell behind before its own demanding fans this summer? We found out on Thursday.
Marcelo’s own goal, which came after Croatia forward Nikica Jelavic misplayed a cross from Ivica Olic, was a stunner. But Brazil was out of its rut after about 20 minutes and was the superior side for a healthy majority of the remaining 70 (Croatia did have a couple of looks at goal toward the end).
Brazil’s outside backs, Dani Alves and Marcelo, played smarter, and Oscar, who scored the late backbreaker, proved to be a perfect complement to Neymar. Brazil held most of the ball and never appeared really rattled. That resolve, likely inspired by veteran coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, will be crucial considering the pressure and expectations heaped upon this team.
CREDIT TO CROATIA
Croatia coach Niko Kovac promised he wouldn’t “park the bus” against the skillful Brazilians. He kept his word.
The own goal with which his side took the lead wasn’t undeserved. Pushed on by a very offensively-inclined midfield anchored by Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, who is bound for Barcelona, the visitors went at Brazil without fear. Croatia spread the field, which left them vulnerable in spots but created a wide-open and entertaining first half that set a nice tone for the tournament. Olic was effective on the left wing and Inter Milan’s Mateo Kovacic, 20, moved the ball well. He may emerge as one of the World Cup’s top young talents.
Kovac, hired last fall, also promised “no surrender.” And there was none. Croatia was physical when it had to be (it committed 21 fouls to Brazil’s five) and caused the favorites some problems near the end while pushing for an equalizer.
Croatia could have come to Sao Paulo, bunkered and hoped. Instead, it played, and demonstrated that it has the quality to push for second place in Group A. Its response to Thursday’s defeat will be key. The controversial penalty (Lovren didn’t pull on Fred but did have his hands on the forward, inviting the referee to make a decision) could leave the Croats feeling the fates are against them. Or, their ability to take the game to Brazil, even briefly, may boost them to a spot in the second round.