To simply peruse the box score would be to assume that Brazil’s 3–1 defeat of Croatia in Thursday’s World Cup opener was business as usual—in a nation where the conducting of business is anything but that. Selecao’s victory against its most formidable opponent in Group A was error-strewn, uneven and undeniably aided by two charitable second-half referee calls.
For a nation and football team as obsessed with aesthetics as Brazil is, this was not a good look.
Brazil, the most successful side in World Cup history with five championships, waited 64 years to host FIFA’s—and football’s—premier event. And so it was that just 11 minutes into the match Brazil scored upon itself. Croatia’s Ivica Olic attempted a crossing shot from the left side that the canary-yellow jersey-clad Marcelo, running full speed toward his side’s goal, booted past his own teammate, goalkeeper Julio Cesar.
The country that has scored more goals than anyone in World Cup history (218) had scored its first against itself. Suddenly it was Croatia, 1-nil, less than 12 minutes into the World Cup and you could hear a nation collectively gasping, “We spent $11.3 billion for that?”
Less than 20 minutes later or, if you happen to be Brazilian, an eternity later, 22-year-old striker Neymar evened the match with a low, seeing-eye shot that deflected off the post and into the net.
And there it stood for 40 minutes, as the stylish Brazilians controlled play but constantly missed one another on passes. ESPN’s Ian Darke even wondered aloud if Brazil would be content with the one point a draw would bring each side, as opposed to three points for victory. Croatia was content to wait for opportunities to counterattack.
Then, in the 71st minute, Brazilian striker Fred maneuvered for position in the penalty area and as the ball came his way, Croatian defender Dejan Lovren placed a hand on his left shoulder with all the aggression of a stranger at Starbucks informing you that you’ve left your smartphone on the counter. Fred fell as if he’d just been struck by Mario Chalmers and Japanese referee Nuichi Yushimura bought it.
Though Yushimura would have been justified in giving Fred a yellow card for flopping, he instead issued one to Lovren. Neymar dispatched the resulting penalty kick—Croatian goaltender Victor Pletikosa got both gloves on the ball, but only deflected it into the net’s corner.
The match’s final dramatic moment came in the 84th minute, as Olic challenged a ball in the air and collided somewhat with Brazil’s goalie, Cesar. Both fell to the turf as another Croatian booted the ball into the net. For a moment the match appeared to be tied once more, but Yushimura disallowed it, saying that Olic’s play had been too rough.
“That is shameful,” Croatia’s coach, Niko Kovac, said. “This is not a World Cup referee. He had one kind of criteria for them and another for us. The rules were not the same.”
With Cameroon and Mexico, who meet today, filling out Group A, there’s an excellent chance that both Brazil and Croatia will advance to the knockout round (final 16). The Croatians, remember, were without arguably their most potent offensive weapon, striker Mario Mandzukic. The Bayern Munich star had been issued a red card in Croatia’s final qualifier. He will return when the Vatreni next take the pitch against Cameroon on Wednesday.
As for the hosts, they played poorly against a smart and competent side and still won by two goals (Oscar launched a strike in stoppage time). The win was as ugly as the traffic in Sao Paolo right now, but like most commuters, Selecao eventually arrived at the intended destination.
Today, Day 2
Match of the Day: Netherlands vs. Spain. A replay of the 2010 World Cup final from South Africa, which La Furia Roja won 1–0 late in extra time. The Spaniards are once again favored to make a deep run in this tournament, but with upstart Chile in Group B as well as this pair, defeat today will make the Chile match a must-win for the loser.
Wager of the Day: Chile over Australia. La Roja (Chile) were a dark horse in South Africa four years ago, but advanced to the knockout round. Under new manager Jorge Sampaoli, who took over at the start of 2013, the Chileans have lost only three of 18 matches. The Socceroos barely qualified for Brazil. Note: This is the only match between two Southern Hemisphere sides in the group stage.