SAO PAULO – Gp A: Brazil 3, Croatia 1 —- KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTS: Sepp Blatter can claim to be ahead of his time. On Wednesday the FIFA president told the world federation’s congress it was time for video replays. Had such technology been available then Brazil would not have been awarded the penalty which put them ahead and set them on their way to a 3-1 win over Croatia.
The scoreline was cruel indeed on the visitors whose manager, Niko Kovac, raged that Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura had been “out of his depth” that the penalty and other awards had been “ridiculous” and that “if we continue this way we will have a circus.”
Certainly his performance will reignite the debate over whether FIFA should prioritise selecting the most worldy wise referees ahead of the most politically expedient.
Thus Brazil, with a slice of fortune and a large helping of explosive talent from two-goal Neymar, struggled out from beneath the crushing weight of expectation to secure the victory which was the single essential of this Opening Match of the 20th, 2014 World Cup finals.
Tournament winners start slowly and put the pieces of their game together steadily from game to game until an irresistible – and ultimately triumphant – momentum has been established.
On that score the weaknesses in the performances of both Brazil’s team and several individuals – notably Hulk, Paulinho, Luiz Gustavo and penalty-winner Fred – should not earn them instant dismissal. This is a work in progress for coach Luiz Felipe Scolari.
Croatia do not have such a consolation. They played with commitment, pace, intelligence and not a little skill – though a reckless tendency to try to out-trick the Brazilians could have proved costly on occasions.
Indeed, they even grabbed an early lead while Brazil’s composure, like the floodlights, flickered uncertainly across the pitch.
Ivica Olic might have put Croatia in front with a close-range header in the second minute which dropped wide but relief for Brazil did not last long. In the 11th minute Olic crossed from the left, Nikica Jelavic touched the ball on and Marcelo, wrongfooted, deflected the ball into his own net.
That was Brazil’s first own goal in the history of the World Cup and an unwanted gift conceded by the Real Madrid left back on his 26th birthday.
As the floodlights failed and then reignited so Brazil raised their own energy level. Paulinho and Oscar drew fine saves from Croat keeper Stipe Pletikosa before Neymar made his presence felt in more ways than one.
First the Barcelona forward was booked for pushing his forearm into the face of Luka Modric then he took advantage of lazy Croat covering to stride through midfield and equalise off the inside of Pletikosa’s left-hand post.
Croatia appeared willing, committed and sparky on the break. But in midfield they had allowed Brazil far too much respect. Manager Kovac put that right at half-time and the Croats controlled the first 10 minutes of the second half before falling behind to a highly contentious penalty.
Centre back Dejan Lovren merely flapped a loose hand on to the shoulder of Fred but the centre-forward’s fall tricked Japanese referee Nishimura into awarding a penalty.
To Pletikosa’s frustration his right hand reached Neymar’s kick but sheer power propelled the ball on within the side-netting.
For Neymar this was a fifth goal as many internationals, his 24th in his last 29 outings for his country and a 33rd to mark his 50th appearance for his country.
Had Kovac, as Blatter suggested, enjoyed the option of appeal then a video referee would have put Nishmura right and transformed the decision into a yellow card to Fred for simulation.
Instead the penalty and the goal stood.
Croatia even had an ‘equaliser’ ruled out questionably for a foul on keeper Julio Cesar and the rest was predictable: the Croats extended themselves in pursuit of an equaliser and Oscar ran away to wrap it all up for Brazil in stoppage time.
Brazil’s fans went home happy with a 10th successive win if not the performance; the Croats had few of FIFA’s promotionally favoured ‘handshakes of peace’ to offer the referee on their own departure.
“If that’s how we start the World Cup, we better give it up now and go home,” said Kovac. “We talk about respect, that wasn’t respect, Croatia didn’t get any. If that’s a penalty, we don’t need to play football anymore. Let’s play basketball instead.”