Brazil opens with gifted win over Croatia
Brazil doesn't care how it won.
All Brazil cares about is it capped a perfect day for soccer with a perfect beginning to its World Cup campaign.
The favoured team to win the World Cup overcame an early 1-0 deficit for a 3-1 win over Croatia Thursday in Group A play.
The result brought a collective sigh of relief to the team ... and a nation.
The Selecao are under enormous pressure to win the World Cup at home. Anything less and the question of bushels of money being wasted on the tournament will only get louder and more plentiful.
So the Brazilians came ready to play.
And Croatia met them head on.
In fact, Brazil needed a gift in the shape of a penalty kick awarded by Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura in the 71st minute to come away with the win.
Brilliant Brazilian forward Neymar converted the penalty for his second goal of the game. Oscar rounded out the scoring with a goal in added time.
Nishimura called the penalty when he felt Croatian defender Dejan Lovren tugged Fred down by the shirt. Fred went down like he'd been pulled by a two-ton truck.
It was an extraordinarily good performance but an incredibly weak call.
Croatian keeper Stipe Pletikosa got a big portion of the ball but couldn't keep Neymar's hard shot out.
In 2010, during the World Cup quarterfinal in South Africa, Nishimura red-carded Brazilian Felipe Melo to help the Netherlands eliminate Brazil.
How much criticism would he have undergone if he hadn't given the penalty?
It's why it is so difficult for European teams to win in South America. Pressure isn't only on the players but on officials as well.
Were the Brazilians better than the Croatians? Probably.
But Croatia did not deserve to be done in by that kind of call. Nor did they merit the harsh 3-1 scoreline.
Croatia did Brazil's future opponents a favour. It exposed some of Brazil's vulnerabilities that will doom the home side if Brazil expects to run the table.
Christmas can't continue for a month for Luiz Felipe Scolari's boys.
"If that's a penalty, we don't need to play football anymore. Let's play basketball instead. It's a shame," said Croatian manager Niko Kovac.
He was calm and composed on the outside. But we can probably deduce that his insides must have been turning as badly as some of his defenders were when Neymar had the ball at his feet.
It's rare that any player or coach would take three minutes to answer one question in a press conference but that's how long Kovac took when asked about the penalty call.
"It's ridiculous," he said. "If we continue in this way, we will have a circus.
"Brazil doesn't need any help from the referees."
The Croatians knew they would be under enormous pressure from the moment they took the field. This was Brazil after all.
Regardless of what transpired outside the stadium with protests, organizational difficulties and criticism about Brazil's preparedness, the fans inside just wanted to see their beloved team play and play well. There was nothing understated inside the stadium, beginning with a massive roar for goalkeeper Julio Cesar when he came out to warm-up.
When the full team came out, the unfinished stadium shook to the cheers.
Croatia was not troubled by any of it. Kovac threw out a clear challenge to the Brazilians, fielding a starting lineup that was not going to sit back and absorb pressure. It was going to deliver pressure.
The plan worked immediately with Croatia exposing the Brazilian flanks.
Lazy defending and a low cross found a touch by Nikica Jelavic and pounded off Marcelo past Cesar.
It was an 11th-minute own goal and the Arena Corinthians was silenced. But it was the kind of goal that neutral observers love because it promises to open up a game.
The goal did more than just open up the game, it blew it open. Brazil launched attack after attack with fluidity and speed. It was beautiful stuff to watch.
With Neymar ghosting through the middle and Oscar floating in from the wing, Croatia had its hands full.
The crowd was at a full-throated roar throughout the first half. They were in love with their team and their soccer.
But as much as they wanted to fall at their feet in adulation, worshipping what they want to believe is the best soccer team in the world, there were more than a few moments when the crowd realized not everything was without worry.
They also recognized that but for a gift it might have been a far different result.