SAO PAULO – Among the many reasons Brazil is favored by many to win its sixth World Cup – such as unmatched offensive firepower – is the benefit of playing on home soil, where a crowd can lift emotions and referees tend to be influenced by the intense environment.
Thursday's World Cup opener offered examples of both, most notably in the 71st minute, when referee Yuichi Nishimura fell for a blatant, in-the-penalty-box dive by Brazilian forward Fred.
Rather than play on, Nishimura awarded Brazil a penalty kick that star forward Neymar delivered on moments later. It gave Brazil a 2-1 lead over the Croatians and changed the course of the game. Brazil added a third score late to take the 3-1 victory, leaving Croatia with little to do but vehemently complain about that call, among many.
"If that’s a penalty, then we can just stop playing football right now," said Croatian coach Niko Kovac, suggesting biased officiating could be a tournament long problem. "…It's ridiculous. If we continue in this way, we will have a circus. …If that’s how we start the World Cup, then we may as well give up and go home now."
[Photos: Brazil and Croatia kickstart World Cup]
The result satisfied the rowdy 68,000-plus fans, most clad in Brazilian yellow, who provided a charged atmosphere as the home team began a quest for a sixth World Cup while hosting the event for the first time since 1950. While street protests over government spending and FIFA demands raged in other parts of the city and fans inside Arena de Sao Paulo chanted vulgarities at Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, this was mostly a night to celebrate the game that this country is so passionate about.
Neymar's penalty kick, which Croatian goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa deflected but couldn't keep out of the net, set up Brazil for the come-from-behind victory.
"Put your hand up if you think it was a penalty," Kovac said during his postgame news conference. "Two billion people [watching on television] could see it was not a penalty."
Croatia struck first on a counter attack when Ivica Olic crossed the ball from the left side low into the box. The ball brushed off the leg of teammate Nikica Jelavic that deflected it into the path of Brazil's Marcelo, who knocked it past goalkeeper Julio Cesar.
The 11th-minute score shocked the crowd that was here to celebrate both the team and the game itself. The fans immediately rallied though, stomping and cheering and pleading their guys to continue their all out attacking style.
The Brazilians pressed, forcing Pletikosa to make a number of point-blank saves. Finally, after Cesar made a leaping save on a Croatian header and sent the ball up field, Brazil's top threat, Neymar, slipped a shot from outside the box off the right goalpost and in for the equalizer in the 29th minute.
The teams went into the break level after that well-played first half. Even as the pace of play slowed, perhaps because for Croatia a tie under these circumstances would have been nearly as good as a victory.
The penalty kick call, however, spoiled the back-and-forth action and will go down as infamous in Croatia. Fred fell in a heap after being grabbed just slightly on the shoulder.
With a 2-1 lead and Croatia pressing, Brazilian midfielder Oscar scored from about 20 yards on a nice individual effort that highlighted the power of this team.
To the surprise of no one, Brazil is to be reckoned with – here at home even more than ever.