SÃO PAULO – I know this isn’t the smartest sentiment to share when you make a living working on the Internet, but I’m really starting to believe technology is a bit overrated.
Take the opening match of the World Cup, played at the fascinating and equally frustrating Arena de São Paulo here on Thursday night, when a yellow sea of Brazilian supporters samba’d in to watch their beloved Seleção before far too many of them promptly watched the game through the microscopic lens of their cell phones.
Or maybe it was the banks of overhead lights that failed midway through the first half, the stadium Wi-Fi that didn’t always cooperate or the expertly installed sensory toilets that wouldn’t flush in the men’s bathrooms.
Or perhaps it was FIFA’s newest toy, the goal-line technology that soccer fans have been starved for since the last World Cup. The scoreboards lit up Thursday night each time a player scored with an animated graphic that showed a checkered soccer ball crossing the goal line, expensive 8-bit video on a hi-definition screen completely unnecessary to confirm what we already knew.
Neymar scored. All of São Paulo told me so.
It wasn’t the first goal of this World Cup or even the game-winner in Brazil’s come-from-behind 3-1 victory over Croatia. Brazilian defender Marcelo fumbled a clearance into the net for an unflattering first score, and a penalty kick in the 71st minute off a dubious call sealed Brazil’s win, but what Neymar pulled off just before the sun set Thursday night was hi-def in high speed, and a glimpse into the emotions this World Cup can create, if everyone puts down their phones and pays attention.
His moves weren’t complicated. In fact, Neymar’s individual artistry was better displayed at other times throughout the match when he juked and scooted into Croatia’s midfield, toying with his opponents before a final pass went astray or a shot blasted wide of the goal.
But the one that counted – that really counted – was fairly simple. He took the ball off a pass from Oscar not far inside Croatia’s half and evaded a sliding tackle from midfielder Ivan Perisic, and then the world opened up in front of him. He took the space and was ready to fire by the time he was 25 yards from goal, his left foot somehow able to drag a shot just inside the far post that, had it been just an inch too far to the right, would have skipped away harmlessly.
Thankfully, fate had other ideas.
There are few players like Neymar in the world right now, but the ones cut from the same magic cloth can operate in suffocating, tight spaces and make it look easy. It’s fabulous and somewhat maddening to wonder how the best players can be so delicate and precise when they’re being pummeled by stray knees or pulled at the shoulder, somehow able to stay on their feet and emerge from the phone booth as Superman with a soccer ball.
So when Croatian defender Dejan Lovren allowed Neymar acres of space with the ball on his foot, the outcome was inevitable. The only question really became just how hard the yellow sea would churn when the ball hit the net, and how fast photographers could snap the first iconic image of this World Cup.
As it turned out, maybe a few cameras should have been pointed out across the cityscape of São Paulo. Within seconds of the goal, the sky was dotted with fireworks above the rooftops in neighborhoods surrounding the stadium, a cathartic celebration for a local hero who grew up in the São Paulo region of Mogi das Cruzes.
Inside the stadium, the chant was unavoidable, over and over: “O campeão está de volta! O campeão está de volta! O campeão está de volta!”
Translation: The champion is back.
Neymar’s night ended with an ovation befitting of his stature here, the hero of a Brazilian team most expect will win the country’s first World Cup since 2002 in Rio de Janeiro next month. Manager Luiz Felipe Scolari pulled him in the 88th minute – after he converted the game-winning penalty kick in the 71st minute and before Oscar’s goal in the 91st minute filled out the final scoreline – and Neymar pointed to the heavens.
Cell phone cameras flashed and popped in the stands, the image saved and stored, streamed and shared. History, right there in the palm of your hand.
Technology. Doing its best to somehow replicate an instant in São Paulo on Thursday night that could be lived once and only once. No filter, please.