Brazil 3-1 Croatia: Neymar double fires host to victory in World Cup opening game

Brazil 3-1 Croatia: Neymar double fires host to victory in World Cup opening game
Brazil's defender Marcelo is watched by teammate Juloi Cesar as he score an own goal
Brazil’s defender Marcelo is watched by teammate Juloi Cesar as he score an own goal

Brazil 3-1 Croatia: The passion of a nation and its love of football was finally unleashed last night as Brazil kicked off the 20th World Cup with victory over Croatia, writes Oliver Holt in Sao Paulo.

After a build-up marred by social unrest and demonstrations, fireworks lit up the night sky over this sprawling city to celebrate both goals in the 3-1 win.

But this was not a comfortable night for the hosts of whom so much is expected.

They fell behind early in the match and, after they had equalised through the mesmerising Neymar, they needed a soft penalty awarded by referee Yuichi Nishimura and converted by Neymar to give them victory.

It was a nervous, tense night for coach Luis Felipe Scolari and his team. The game was short on the beautiful but the result was everything.

Few will remember a turgid Opening Ceremony but no one who was here will forget the pre-match rendition of the Brazilian national anthem.

David Luiz shouted it out, eyes bulging, body shaking. Neymar’s lip quivered. Others closed their eyes as if in prayer.

Those were spine-tingling moments when a nation seemed to be speaking, pleading for glory.

But Croatia are Brazil’s strongest opponents in Group A and they soon set about proving it.

They gave Brazil a warning when Ivica Olic rose highest to meet a cross at the back post and headed wide when he ought to have scored.

Then, after 11 minutes, the unthinkable happened and Croatia took the lead.

Olic, who had a superb half, worked himself free on the left and crossed to Jelavic at the near post.

Jelavic scuffed his shot but it ran on into the path of Marcelo who could only divert it into his own net.

Marcelo looked mortified. These are the kinds of moments that can haunt a man for a long, long time.

Suddenly, you could smell fear in the Brazil team. For a while the enormity of the impact of defeat stifled them.

Everything seemed to be going wrong. Some of the floodlights went out and Neymar was booked for swinging his forearm into the face of Modric.

Brazil pressed forward desperately. Neymar wriggled to the byline but when his cross was cleared, Oscar’s shot was brilliantly saved by Pletikosa.

Maybe it was going to be one of those nights. Horror gripped the crowd.

Brazil had not lost a competitive home match since they were defeated by Peru in an Copa America semi-final in 1975.

None of the players in this Brazil World Cup squad had even been born then.

Then, after half an hour, Brazil forced their way back into the game and the Neymar Show began.

The poster boy of Brazilian football, the man whose number 10 shirt lined the avenues leading to the stadium, surged away from his markers just inside the Croatia half.

He advanced to the edge of the box, sidestepped a defender and hit a bobbling shot goalwards.

Pletikosa should have saved it comfortably but he dived awkwardly and slowly and the ball crept past his left hand, hit the post and went in.

The crowd went wild. Relief and exultation rent the stadium. And the Sao Paulo night sky was lit by a thousand firecrackers set off all over the city.

It was a stunning sight and now Brazil tried to press home their advantage. Neymar was irresistible, weaving away from challenges, drawing fouls, threatening to win the game on his own.

Neymar and his teammates bore a heavy responsibility last night on and off the pitch.

The preamble to the game had been marred by clashes in the city between anti-World Cup demonstrators and police.

The police had used stun grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas to try to disperse the crowd who were protesting against the excesses of the World Cup and the corruption that has stained many of the building projects here.

Many feared that a Brazil defeat would unleash new levels of anger and resentment.

The players seemed to be labouring under that pressure again at the start of the second half.

Brazil were becalmed and Modric and Olic began to threaten again. The crowd grew restless.

Fred and Hulk appeared to be expecting Neymar to win the game by himself. Croatia recognised that danger, too. When Neymar advanced on goal again, Corluka hacked him down with a brutal challenge.

Brazil needed a huge stroke of luck to take the lead 20 minutes from time.

Lovren barely touched Fred as he shielded the ball with his back to goal but when the Brazil striker went down, the referee pointed to the spot.

Croatia protested furiously. Neymar waited for the longest time before starting his run up. He stuttered his stride and tried to wait for Pletikosa to commit himself.

Pletikosa did not take the bait though and got a strong hand to the kick but he could not keep it out.

Oscar wrapped things up in injury time when he toe-poked a shot inside the post but it did little to eat at the sense of injustice gnawing at Croatia.


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