SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazil’s poster boy Neymar scored twice and the outstanding Oscar added a late third as the hosts came from behind to beat Croatia 3-1 in a thrilling World Cup opening match on Thursday.
The Group A game, tipped the hosts’ way after a controversial 71st-minute penalty awarded by Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura in front of a 62,103 crowd at the Corinthians arena.
But he immediately pointed to the spot and then seemed to run away as if he was going to be brought down by a pack of angry Croatian players after he ruled that Croatia skipper Dejan Lovren had hauled down Fred when it clearly looked as though the Brazil striker threw himself to the ground.
Nishimura ran off the pitch and booked Lovren as the chasing Croatia players screamed at him for what they perceived to be a misjudgement.
After the mayhem Neymar kept his composure and put Brazil ahead for the first time with a right-foot penalty which Croatia keeper Stipe Pletikosa got a hand to but could not save.
“We talk about respect, that wasn’t respect, Croatia didn’t get any,” furious Croatia coach Niko Kovac told reporters.
”If that’s a penalty, we don’t need to play football anymore. Let’s play basketball instead, it’s a shame.
“That was ridiculous and if we continue in this way we will have a circus.”
Apart from that serious misjudgement Nishimura controlled the superbly-balanced game well as both teams went looking for goals and created chances at both ends.
Neymar, under enormous pressure to produce the kind of football that could lead Brazil to their sixth World Cup, did not disappoint with some stunning passes and moves as he held off rigorous challenges by the stylish Croatians.
”I’m very happy, really happy indeed, more than I ever dreamed or imagined,“ Neymar said. ”We started off on the right foot, with a victory.
“The merit belongs to the team as a whole, which remained cool and calm to come from behind and win.”
Neymar hauled Brazil back into the match after 29 minutes with the equaliser after defender Marcelo put through his own net after 11 minutes to give Croatia a shock lead.
“The only thing we want is that Neymar is happy playing ball,” Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said.
”He’s a special player…. He can rest assured that we’re going to help him. He doesn’t need all of you (the media) to demand that he become the best player in the world. His responsibility is to play for Brazil and that’s what he did today.”
Brazilians clearly wanted one of their team to score the first goal of the finals, but not in the way it came about and Marcelo’s misfortune meant he became the first Brazilian ever to score an own goal at the World Cup.
The cross that bamboozled him came from Ivica Olic whose low ball from the left went through the legs of Brazil skipper Thiago Silva, clipped Nikica Jelavic’s foot and bounced in off Marcelo with keeper Julio Cesar helpless.
Croatia could have gone ahead even earlier when Olic headed narrowly wide from a pinpoint Ivan Perisic centre.
Neymar created Brazil’s first opening when he jinked along the byline, resulting in a half-cleared ball to Oscar who slammed in a curling 25-metre drive that Pletikosa acrobatically pushed away.
But Croatia’s reprieve only lasted seven minutes and the equaliser was greeted by scenes of unbridled joy by Brazilian fans and players with fireworks visible on the city skyline through the huge openings on the corners of the stadium.
Oscar, at the core of most of Brazil’s attacks, started the move by beating two men in midfield before finding Neymar who advanced a few metres before cracking in a low left-foot shot that went in off the base of Pletikosa’s left-hand post for his 32nd goal in his 50th international.
Neymar scored his 33rd with the penalty and although Croatia never stopped battling, Oscar wrapped up the win in the first minute of stoppage time with a low drive which he toe-poked home to seal Brazil’s 10th successive victory.
“We still have to improve quite a bit, we’re going to have to evolve and we’re going to have to assimilate some setbacks,” Scolari said.
“Our players were excellent, they showed determination to be able to come from behind. They were fantastic.”
“But who really deserves praise are the fans. It was wonderful, the support we received here in Sao Paulo. If there’s still any notion out that Sao Paulo doesn’t root for the national team effusively enough, that was put to rest today.”
Editing by Ed Osmond