Thursday night’s World Cup in São Paulo between Croatia and Brazil will not go down in the tournament’s history as one of the better opening matches. But to tens of thousands of jubilant locals, the only thing that mattered wasn’t the fortuitous way in which they wrapped-up the three points — it was the score after 90 minutes.
In truth, the 3-1 score-line truly flattered the hosts. For large parts of the game, Brazil was lackluster, lacking creativity, with very little predatory instinct before goal. As the national anthems were being played before kick off, the Brazilians were recognizably more emotional than their Croatian counterparts; had nerves and the sheer expectations of the tournament gotten to the hosts?
Having fallen behind in the 11th minute after Marcelo’s own-goal, the only side looking to score was Croatia. Despite flashes of skill going forward from Neymar and Oscar, the usually robust Brazilian defense was sloppy, with Barcelona’s Daniel Alves particularly culpable. Nikica Jelavić, who plays for Hull City in England, probably should have scored a header after out-jumping Alves. Defender Vedran Ćorluka also game close in the second half, while Yuichi Nishimura, the Japanese referee, missed Alves’ taking down veteran forward Ivica Olić as he ran through on goal. Olić might also feel unlucky that his challenge on Brazilian goalkeeper Júlio César was penalized, in an era when referees are being a little less protective of the man between the sticks.
And yet, despite looking out of sorts, the Brazilians equalized in the 29th minute as Neymar’s scuffed shot (or perfectly placed effort) slowly evaded the hapless Stipe Pletikosa into the net. But it was the manner in which the Brazilians went ahead that truly infuriated the Croats.’
As both teams wrestled for the ball in the box, it fell to Brazilian forward Fred, who threw himself to the ground after coming under pressure from Southampton’s Dejan Lovren. To the amazement of billions at home (and the 11 Croats on the field), Nishimura pointed to the spot, leaving Neymar to step up and grab Brazil’s (and his) second of the night. In truth, it was an effort that Pletikosa should have kept out. But it was also a penalty that should never have been awarded in the first place.
As the game went on, the Croats endeavored to find that equalizer that they so richly deserved. Chances came and went, with the superb Luka Modric dictating the play with the almost equally impressive Ivan Perišić and Ivan Rakitić always in the thick of the action. But as the Croats went forward in numbers, they were punished at the death by Chelsea’s midfielder Oscar, who toe-poked a cute finish beyond Pletikosa — an effort that the veteran goalkeeper surely feels he should have done better on.
Although he might want to take a look at his team’s failure to add to their lead, Croatia’s Coach Niko Kovac was right to feel aggrieved, claiming that the referee was out of his depth. If Nishimura’s performance met FIFA’s standard, he added, the Croats might as well go home.
His dismissive remarks about the referee are unlikely to go unnoticed by FIFA officials, but one might say the same of Nishimura’s performance. FIFA is renowned for taking a very hard line against underperforming officials — especially when their decisions are so consequential to a game’s outcome.
At 3-1, the result was harsh on the Croats and really didn’t reflect fairly on what was a disappointing performance from the hosts. The points mattered, but they were bailed out by a shocking decision. So much for the beautiful game. The sea of yellow and green celebrated long into the night, but their World Cup rivals would also have watched with some intrigue. This Brazilian side will certainly gel a little better as the tournament progresses, but like a great deal of the tournament’s infrastructure, they are the unfinished article.