SÃO PAULO, Brazil – As a nearly full moon glowed beyond a corner of Arena de São Paulo on Thursday evening, strange events seized the first match of the World Cup. A bank of lights at the flawed stadium flickered off, casting an eerie shadow as Brazil and Croatia played on.
Most troubling for a sellout crowd radiating in Brazilian yellow, defender Marcelo committed an own goal in the 11th minute — the first in Brazil’s illustrious Cup history.
If the Selecão did not feel the immense pressure of hosting the sport’s quadrennial extravaganza before, it certainly was now. Staging the tournament for the first time since 1950, the five-time world champions were losing to Croatia.
It took 22-year-old stars Neymar and Oscar, as well as a suspect call leading to the go-ahead goal in the 71st minute, to set matters straight and reset Brazil’s title hopes with a 3-1 victory.
Check out the horrible call in this video. Referee Yuichi Nishimura seems to have taken his eyes off the ball and caught only the end of the dive:
Neymar, a forward from FC Barcelona, scored in the 29th and 71st minute and Oscar, a Chelsea midfielder, secured the three points in stoppage time of a crackling opener before 62,103 spectators.
Croatia was without Bayern Munich forward Mario Mandzukic, whose red card in the qualifying playoff against Iceland carried over into the tournament proper. The Croatians, though, had no intentions of sitting back against Brazil, which carried defensive vulnerability into the tournament.
Brazil harnessed the energy and emotion of the vibrant scene to set the terms, but Croatia probed for counterattacking opportunities, spearheaded by Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, and threatened on Ivica Olic’s header just seven minutes into the match.
Disaster then struck for Brazil. Olic targeted Nikica Jelavic making a central run deep into the penalty area. Olic’s left-side cross met Jelavic, who failed to make solid contact. Goalkeeper Julio César, who plays for MLS’s Toronto FC, anticipated Jelavic redirecting the ball to the near corner and committed to his right.
However, the errant touch allowed the ball to continue across the six-yard box. Marcelo was in full stride marking on the back side and, with an instant to react, pushed the ball into the gaping net.
While pods of red-checkered Croatian supporters erupted in disbelief, the rest of the stadium — and surely a nation of 200 million — fell silent.
At that moment, the only man more unpopular in the arena than Marcelo was Sepp Blatter, the scandal-scarred president of FIFA, soccer’s international governing body.
The Selecão responded with a fury, applying unbearable pressure on the Croatians.
In the 22nd minute, Neymar danced around Ivan Rakitic at the end line and crossed dangerously into the six-yard box. The Croatian clearance fell to Oscar for a blinding 22-yard shot that goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa prevented from finding the upper corner.
The equalizer came seven minutes later. Oscar did the dirty work, keeping possession for Brazil amid several Croatians. He linked with Neymar, who charged at the heart of the defense and veered to his left before firing a low bid without peak velocity but with perfect location to the far corner. It skimmed beyond Pletikosa’s reach and kissed the right post before settling into the net.
Neymar raced toward the bench. Brazil Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, known as “Big Phil” and the guide of the Selecão’s previous World Cup title 12 years ago, hugged his attacker like a proud grandfather embracing a child.
The Brazilian supporters broke into a chant: “The champion is back!”
Order had been restored. Another goal, though, would have to wait.
Croatia withstood Brazil’s forays, and early in the second half, was causing trouble again. Olic tried to connect with Jelavic, but the forward did not make the run Olic wished. Olic had a tantrum, jumping and gesturing at Jelavic.
In the 65th minute, Neymar infiltrated central space before Vedran Corluka took him out with a hard tackle — a well-deserved yellow card.
The penalty kick was not deserved. Oscar supplied Fred with his back to the goal. Dejan Lovren put his hand on Fred’s shoulder, prompting the Brazilian striker to take an exaggerated fall. Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura pointed to the spot and, as if anticipating Croatia’s response, dashed to the end line. The Croatians followed en masse.
Neymar converted the penalty kick, but not without Pletikosa guessing correctly, committing to his right and getting both hands on the ball. The rising shot was struck too hard to keep out of the net, though. Neymar and Brazil were celebrating again.
Croatia’s hopes of Nishimura ruling in its favor were dashed in the 83rd minute when Olic was properly whistled for bumping Julio César on a high ball, halting play before Ivan Perisic drove the ball into the net.
Modric followed with a rasping drive turned aside by the diving keeper, who was called upon again during stoppage time.
Oscar settled matters moments later on a counterattack, using his inside foot to drive a low shot from the top of the box to the near left corner.
Brazil will play Mexico on Tuesday in Fortaleza.
© 2014, The Washington Post