Neymar, Brazil’s $100 million striker, delivered just as his country needed him. The World Cup host also got help from the referee in tonight’s 3-1 win against Croatia in the opening game of soccer’s biggest event.
After spending $11 billion on troubled stadiums and other infrastructure, Brazil’s games got under way, although not as the nation planned. Croatia took the lead with a Marcelo own-goal after 11 minutes that stunned the majority of the 62,103 fans in the Sao Paulo arena into silence.
Then Neymar, who Spanish team Barcelona invested more than $100 million in last season, scored twice. His left-foot shot bounced into the corner to draw Brazil even, and then he converted a penalty with 20 minutes to go following a call by Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura that left Croatian players angered. Oscar completed the scoring in the 91st minute.
“I’m very happy, I think even happier than I dreamed of,” said Neymar, who was named man of the match.
In front of a crowd that included Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who was subjected to abusive chants several times, Brazil started poorly in a stadium that had come to symbolize the problems with the country’s preparation. Workmen were still putting finishing touches on the facility even as fans started to file in. One section of the stadium lights flickered on and off several times during the game.
The players also delayed showing their best performances.
Croatia’s Ivica Olic had already come close with a header before he sprinted down the left and sent a pass across the penalty box, confusing the Brazilian defenders. Marcelo could only poke the ball into his own net.
Neymar then combined with Oscar to lead Brazil’s recovery. Croatia’s lead survived for 18 minutes before Neymar stole possession inside the visitors’ half and drove toward the goal. He hit a shot from outside the area, spinning it beyond the reach of Croatian goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa. It bounced off the inside of the post and in.
Brazil, favored to win a record-extending sixth World Cup, dominated possession in the second half without testing Pletikosa. The breakthrough came thanks to an assist from Nishimura, according to Croatian coach Niko Kovac.
Defender Dejan Lovren’s hand grasped the shoulder of Fred as the forward attempted a bicycle kick in front of Croatia’s goal. The Brazilian fell to the ground and appealed, and the referee pointed to the penalty spot. Neymar converted to give Brazil the lead, and to start celebrations that included fireworks outside the arena.
“If we continue in this vein there will be 100 penalties in this World Cup,” Kovac told reporters. “Unfortunately, I must say the referee was completely out of his depth.”
Brazil’s coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, said he saw the penalty call “10 times” and felt the decision was correct.
The goals led to celebrations in the crowd, but not all Brazilians were happy. Some are protesting that money spent on the World Cup would have been better used toward improving schools and hospitals.
Cheers turned to boos when video screens in the stadium showed Rousseff celebrating with Sepp Blatter, the president of world soccer governing body FIFA. After being jeered during last year’s Confederations Cup warmup event, Rousseff and Blatter did away with opening speeches for tonight’s game.
Rousseff was jeered before and during today’s game, with fans taunting her with expletive chants before the opening whistle and after the final one.
But Brazil won, and now sits atop Group A with 3 points. Mexico and Cameroon, the other members of the group, play tomorrow. In Group B, Spain takes on the Netherlands and Chile meets Australia.
Scolari, who led Brazil to its last World Cup title in 2002, had been questioned by domestic media over his use of Oscar instead of his Chelsea teammate Willian.
As Croatia pushed to tie and the game opened up, the decision proved correct. Oscar controlled the ball on a quick break in injury time and scored on a shot from the toe end of his shoe. Scolari said he was worthy of the man of the match award, too.
“Before the match I told him, ‘Oscar don’t forget you owe me a goal, don’t forget to score,’” Scolari said. “After the match he came up to me and told me, ‘I’ve paid my debt.’”
Neymar was given a standing ovation as he was substituted with three minutes left to play. Neymar is 22 and now has 33 goals in 50 games.
“He doesn’t need you to tell him he’s the best in the world,” Scolari said. “He has to play for Brazil.”