Brazil beat Croatia but penalty row sours World Cup opener
'Just give the cup to Brazil', say Croatia after controversial opening match in Sao Paulo
Brazil 3 Croatia 1. After the tournament's controversial build-up came the controversial opening game of the 2014 World Cup, as hosts Brazil had the referee to thank after coming from behind to beat Croatia in Sao Paulo.
Two goals from Neymar, including a highly-debatable penalty, helped the Selecao get their World Cup off to a winning start but they had to work hard against a well-drilled Croatia side as their evening failed to go to plan.
Things started badly for Brazil as their opponents scored the first goal of the 2014 World Cup – or rather Brazil defender Marcelo did, putting into his own net on 11 minutes. And it was not entirely undeserved. Croatia looked the sharper of the two sides in the early exchanges and it was Olic's low cross, whipped in from the left, that came off the boot of Marcelo and into his own net.
"The fans were right behind me after I scored the own-goal and they were chanting my name," said Marcelo. "My team-mates also came up to me and that helped me clear my head straightaway. I got back into the game immediately."
Things were soon back on an even keel and the fans were dancing in delight after half an hour when Neymar's scruffy shot crept past Croatian keeper Stipe Pletikosa, brushed the post and ended up in the net. But should Neymar have even been on the pitch? His strike came minutes after he was yellow carded for elbowing Luka Modric in the face. A lesser player in a lesser match may well have seen red.
That, plus the fact that Croatia were awarded just two free kicks in the first half, may have led to a few raised eyebrows in Zagreb, but no-one in Sao Paulo seemed concerned.
But the second-half penalty that gave Brazil the lead was as controversial as a Fifa executive committee meeting. It was in the 71st minute, with the scores level that striker Fred went to ground in the box under minimal pressure from Southampton defender Dejan Lovren, only for Yuichi Nishimura to point to the spot.
Neymar stepped up and converted the spot kick, although Pletikiosa guessed right and got a hand to it.
Croatia, feeling hard done by, continued to apply the pressure and forced Julio Cesar into several saves, and they even had a goal ruled out for a foul on the keeper.
But it was Chelsea player Oscar applied the coup de grace for Brazil on the stroke of full-time to send the full house at the Itaquerao Stadium into full party mode. His fine solo effort, breaking from half-way and prodding home from 18 yards, capped a man-of-the-match performance from the midfielder.
It was a tenth successive win for Luiz Felipe Scolari side's but one that was far from convincing as the men in yellow struggled initially to live up to their billing as tournament favourites.
"I'm delighted at how the team reacted and that we had the presence of mind to come up with the perfect response to the situation," said Neymar. "The ball struggled to get over the line for both my goals but they all count," said Neymar. "It's seeing it lying there in the back of the net that matters."
But there was no doubting the most relieved man in Brazil. In a country where they take their football very seriously, Marcelo would have known he would be public enemy number one if the hosts lost their tournament opener thanks to his own goal: "The first thing I thought was just to stay calm and not make it worse for the team," he explained. "These things happen in football. We started off a little bit tense today, but we managed to turn the game around, thanks to the fantastic support of the fans."
The emotions in the Croatian dressing room were in sharp contrast to the joy of the Brazilians. Southampton defender Lovren, adjudged to have committed the foul that led to the penalty, told L'Equipe: "We played a good game and had the quality to compete with Brazil but not against 12 men."
As for the penalty decision, he labelled it a "scandal", adding that if that is what happens to every team who plays the hosts, it's "better the cup is given immediately to Brazil."