It may not have been a thing of beauty, but with the weight of an entire nation riding on their backs, Brazil managed to rise to victory over Croatia in the pageantry-filled opener of the 2014 World Cup.
And who else but Brazil's shining star, Neymar, whose two goals – the second on a generously given penalty – on either side of halftime gave the host country a 3-1 decision Thursday night at Arena Corinthians in São Paulo in Group A action, capped by an insurance goal delivered in stoppage time by Oscar.
However, there were some inauspicious moments for Brazil, especially after a Marcelo own-goal – the country’s first in World Cup competition – in the 11th minute. But Neymar equalized in the 29th minute and just managed to convert his spot kick in the 71st despite Croatia goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa guessing correctly and managing to get both hands to the ball.
The controversial penalty call came when Croatia defender Dejan Lovren got handsy on defense as Fred received the ball with his back to the goal, leading to the Brazil forward collapsing to the ground and a whistle from referee Yuichi Nishimura.
The eager hosts first had to cope with a shocker when, in the 11th minute, a game Croatian side – playing without star striker Mario Mandzukic as he served a one-game suspension for a qualifying red card – took the lead through Marcelo’s own goal.
Croatia dodged a few bullets as Brazil attempted to appease the nervous crowd, first seeing an Oscar cross in the 15th minute just miss Fred and then Neymar, who sprawled out for the ball attempting to nudge it into the goal, and then a 23rd-minute Oscar blast that was saved splendidly by Pletikosa.
But it wasn’t long before Brazilian fans were dancing in the stands when, in the 29th minute, Neymar’s left-footed roller snuck just inside the right post for the equalizer (WATCH IT HERE).
The goal appeared to also have a settling effect on the Brazilians as they controlled much of the action for the remainder of the half.
But Croatia heaped on pressure in late proceedings and seemingly had an equalizer by Ivan Perisic in the 83rd inute off a rebound from a Ante Rebic shot. But Nishimura got involved again, calling off the play for a foul by Olic on Brazil goalkeeper Júlio César, the Toronto FC man who got the start for his 81st cap.
Brazil then put the match away in the first minute of stoppage time when, just moments after Júlio César parried away a Perisic shot, Oscar converted on the counter, driving a low shot from the edge of the penalty area into the bottom corner.
Brazil return to action on June 17 against Mexico at Estádio Castelão in Fortaleza, while Croatia next play Cameroon on June 18 at Arena Amazônia in Manaus.