So far, so Brazil. On a fretful, at times sleepy, but ultimately rousing night, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s team came from behind in the opening match of Brazil 2014 to beat a well-grooved Croatia 3-1 with the help of a soft penalty and some helpful goalkeeping. In doing so they confirmed what had already seemed clear. The tournament hosts are a resilient, well-drilled team: with added Neymar.
The World Cup’s 22-year-old poster boy not only scored twice, he also confirmed his status as a worthy star of this tournament. Brazil has been enjoying a committed case of Neymar fever for at least the last year. Get ready for a double dose.
Otherwise, despite the usual giddy sense of pre-mondiale tension, this was a familiarly low-key first sight of Brazil, who have often tended to start slowly in World Cups, and who had all but promised a slow start here at the pre-match press conference. Scolari will still have much to ponder in the next four days, not least an obvious weakness at full-back and an over-reliance for incision on that wonderfully limber attacking sprite of a No10 and his deputy Oscar, who was also excellent.
Not too much, though: a 3-1 victory is a fine result with which to start any tournament, not least against a composed, fast-breaking Croatia whose manager, Niko Kovac, was visibly enraged by key decisions by the Japanese referee, Yuichi Nishimura.
It was evident before kick-off that Croatia had come to play, lining up without a holding midfielder and relying instead on the keep-ball skills of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in a dual playmaking role. There were no surprises from Scolari, who picked the team he was always going to pick, with Luis Gustavo and Paulinho providing a muscular central shield and cover for Dani Alves and Marcelo, a pair of fun but flighty full-backs.
The first sight of the teams was in itself a brilliantly stirring sight, the moment all the thrashing around, seven years of fretfulness and speculation, just dies away and what we are left with finally is a football match. Brazil’s anthem was sung with the customary a cappella gusto in its final verse, the White Doves of Blatter were released in the centre circle, and as Croatia kicked off there was a great rolling crackle of nervous energy around the steeply banked stands.
At which point Brazil 2014 took its own turn as Croatia settled the quicker. There was at times a semi-silence around the stadium as Brazil kept the ball without any great thrust and Croatia broke with purpose three times in the opening minutes So much so that when the first goal arrived after 11 minutes it was no great surprise that Croatia scored it. Ivica Olic sprinted clear down the left and his low cross found Nikica Jelavic in between Brazil’s centre halves. The Hull City man’s finish was scuffed, but deflected kindly off Marcelo and into the net.
The goal did at least wake the crowd up, although it was Croatia who continued to press, with Olic maintaining his almost unhindered mastery of Dani Alves’s flank. Brazil’s right-back may be a wonderful, much-garlanded footballer. But he is at times scarcely a right-back at all.
Steadily, Brazil began to creak into life. Neymar wriggled past Sime Vrsaljko by the goal-line, crossed low and from the clearance Oscar’s booming left-footed shot was saved by Stipe Pletikosa. Moments later Neymar was booked for what looked like a deliberate arm into the face of Luka Modric. Croatia’s players gathered around gamely. Neymar defending a high ball in his own half: this was where Kovac will have dreamed about playing this game. A yellow seemed just about fair though. There wasn’t quite the malice for a red.
At which point: enter the other Neymar. For all his struggles at Barcelona, this is a genuinely fine, delicately ruthless world star. Within two minutes of being booked he had levelled the scores, although the goal owed much to Oscar, who muscled his way through two Croatian challenges and then played a pass to his No10. Three jinking touches and the ball was in the net, the last a low, slightly scuffed shot that beat Pletikosa’s grasp too easily. Neymar ran to Scolari on the touchline, the stadium erupted, fireworks popped in the city and with half an hour gone, Brazil 2014 had its unofficial official opening.
For all the sense of relief it was a troubling first half for the hosts, who looked barely half a team at times with both full-backs vulnerable, and Hulk and Fred marginalised. Brazil emerged after the break looking enervated. This is a peculiar stadium, plonked on a red clay, São Paulo hillside with views of the city fringes through its great cantilevered corners. As Brazil kicked off the second half, with mist drifting across and fireworks popping, there was a sleepiness about the place with great swathes of empty plastic seats in the main stand. For Croatia, Modric – the kind of all-round central passing pivot Brazil lack – continued to direct his team’s breaks, and with 59 minutes gone Olic again broke down the left, set free by the kind of pass inside Alves a schoolboy full-back would expect to see coming.
Hulk finally departed with 22 minutes left, replaced by the fresh-faced Bernard. And within a minute, out of nowhere, Brazil had a penalty. It was a soft one too, Fred throwing himself down as he felt Loveren’s hand on his shoulder with his back to goal. Croatia were furious. The referee, though, had seen enough contact. Neymar scored past Pletikosa’s right hand, but it was a horrible penalty in many ways, a terrible, stuttering, jinking run-up, with the ball hit just well enough at saveable height. But this was Neymar’s moment, a second goal to reward a performance of ferreting industry.
Croatia continued to press and Ivan Perisic might even have equalised before Oscar’s goal sealed the game in stoppage-time. Turning over possession in midfield Oscar took two paces and hit an instant toe-poked shot low into the corner from 20 yards, a superb Ronaldo-style finish that was past the goalkeeper before he could dive with conviction, and a sight finally of Scolari’s Brazil at its best.