For the Brazilian national team, it was "mission accomplished" - but it certainly did not come as easily as they, or the entire country, might have hoped. A glorious afternoon in São Paulo kicked-off the 2014 FIFA World Cup with J-Lo, walking trees, dissension for the Brazilian President, familiar refereeing controversies and some very nervy moments for the home side.
It was a festive atmosphere pre-game and many, including FIFA, were happy to have the focus finally turn to the action on the field. Before that, however, the fans were treated to a wonderful, sometimes bizarre, opening ceremony which included sound issues for J-Lo and a myriad of characters on the field. The home fans then provided a treat with their stirring tradition of singing the Brazilian national anthem long after the music stopped. Goose bumps.
Almost understandably, the home side started a bit slowly, as they used Hulk and the impressive-throughout Oscar to stretch the field. Croatia were happy to sit back, soak up the pressure, and use the industrious Olic to explore the flank. It was his run and dangerous cross that confused Brazil, and ended with Marcelo turning the ball into his own net. Cue Brazilian panic and elation for the vocal Croatian minority in the house.
With the small Croatian midfield struggling to maintain possession, however, it was time for Neymar (the pre-ordained star of this tournament) to enforce himself. However, it didn’t come in the way we might have imagined. An elbow (pre-meditated?) to Modric did not look good, but he escaped with only a yellow. A mere two minutes later, he found himself in space and, while scuffing his shot a bit, placed it beautifully. 1-1, the stadium had the moment it was looking for and nerves were calmed.
The match settled for long stretches pre- and post-half time. Brazil searched for another opening while controlling the ball, and Croatia, while enjoying a bit more possession themselves, were still content to sit back and take what was given them. Then came the moment which turned the evening. Perhaps Lovren should know better than to put both hands on the shoulders of his mark, but Fred’s (“Fred-jee” in Brazil) performance convinced the referee to point to the spot. It was a shame. Pletikosa got two strong hands to Neymar’s penalty, and felt he should have kept it out. When the big screen flashed Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff celebrating the goal, a loud and demonstrative majority of the fans began chanting. When I asked for the translation, I was told perhaps it was best not to hear it. Suffice to say, they expressed their strong displeasure.
Croatia felt aggrieved again when they had the ball in the back of the Brazilian net, only for it to be ruled-out due to another soft foul in the build-up. They continued to battle gamely, until Oscar put a finishing touch on an impressive performance. 3-1 to the home side. It wasn’t pretty, and displayed some nerves which perhaps were understandable given the occasion. Croatia were rightfully upset, while Brazil ended up with what matters the most: 3 points.
A sense of relief filled the stadium, streets and bars - not only for the match’s outcome, but for the fact that the tournament was underway. Tension still prevails on the streets and in the stadiums of Brazil, but the feeling is that with football, and perhaps more importantly, the success of the home side, a beleaguered country will have cause for celebration after all.