Maybe when this festival of feet is done a month from now they’ll replace the statue of the Redeemer overlooking Rio with one of this generation’s spiky-haired savior on one leg. Neymar isn’t quite yet at the altitude of Pele, who’d won two World Cups by the time he was 21, but the King’s numerical namesake had a lofty debut on Thursday afternoon, scoring his side’s first two goals while narrowly avoiding a red card to get Brazil up, up and away with a 3-1 triumph over stubborn Croatia in Sao Paulo in the tournament opener.
“The players were fantastic,” exulted manager Luiz Felipe Scolari after the Selecao survived an 11th-minute own goal to grab the quick 3 points that they craved. “They kept calm and turned around the opening match of the World Cup, which is not easy.”
While the hosts likely could have collected the necessary 6 points from the Mexicans, whom they’ll meet Tuesday in Fortaleza, and from Cameroon, and still cruise into the second round, they’d just as soon win their group and avoid a second-round date with defending champion Spain, which takes on the Netherlands on Friday afternoon in a rematch of the 2010 final.
Though Brazil hasn’t lost a Cup opener since 1934, when the Spaniards did a flamenco dance on them in Genoa, the Canarinho has made a habit of languid starts. In 1974, when Brazil was the cupholder, it was held to a scoreless draw by Yugoslavia. Since Pele lifted his third trophy in 1970, his countrymen had won their first outing by more than one goal only once (2-0 over Russia in 1994) until this time.
The Croats had been a particularly stubborn dancing partner in 2006 in Berlin (1-0 on Kaka’s goal just before intermission) and so they were again on Thursday, especially after defender Marcelo popped the ball into his net with keeper Julio Cesar down.
It was the first own goal ever conceded by Brazil in Cup play and the first tally marked this year against the Selecao, which had given up only one in seven matches since beating Portugal in Foxborough last September. It might not have been entirely a bad thing for the homeboys to be shaken awake with time to respond.
They knew that the Croats, who were absent four years ago and needed to beat Iceland in a playoff to qualify, weren’t going to outgun them in their own playpen and they knew that Team Checkerboard didn’t have an answer for Neymar, who received a lucky break when Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura only showed him a yellow card in the 27th minute after he’d given Croatian playmaker Luka Modric a forearm across the throat.
Nor were Neymar’s two goals — in the 29th and 71st minutes — creative confections. The first was a left-footed skimmer (albeit ripped with authority) that ricocheted off the right post and past keeper Stipe Pletikosa and had Scolari, who’d directed Brazil’s last title run in 2002, jumping about in drop-jawed disbelief.
But for a specious foul awarded a flopping Fred by Nishimura, who thought Dejan Lovren had knocked him down in the area, the match might well have ended that way. “Two and a half billion people saw this wasn’t a penalty,” fumed Croatian manager Niko Kovac. “If that was a penalty we should be playing basketball. Those kinds of fouls are penalized there.”
As it was, Pletikosa got a hand on Neymar’s penalty, fired after a bit of stutter-stepping, but couldn’t knock it away. The Croats kept coming, even after they had a goal denied in the 83d minute after Ivica Olic ran into Cesar, and came agonizingly close to pulling out a draw just before Oscar scored the killer in the first minute of stoppage time. “I wouldn’t say it was the best game,” conceded Oscar, “but it’s the World Cup debut.”
Given the citizenry’s mixed feelings about hosting the tournament — police dispersed protesters in both Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro during the hours before kickoff — the Selecao wanted to give the populace a reason to shoot fireworks on opening night. A draw would have produced four days of hand-wringing and a loss to a country that most Brazilians probably couldn’t locate on a map would have been catastrophic.
The victory gives the Selecao a few days of tranquility and the ability to exhale, which every host team badly wants after years of buildup — 64 in this case. And Neymar — the long form is Neymar da Silva Santos Junior — gets to spend the weekend as a hero. “I’m very happy, really happy indeed, more than I ever dreamed or imagined,” he said.
All the man has to do now is step up half a dozen more times. “The star player will be the champion,” Scolari observed. “Because if you’re the star player and don’t win the World Cup, it doesn’t make sense.”