WORLD CUP: Neymar bang on
SAO PAULO – Neymar gave Brazil a winning start to their home World Cup, scoring twice to lead the host nation to an unconvincing 3-1 victory over Croatia in the opening game yesterday.
In his 50th match with Brazil, the 22-year-old forward scored a goal in each half to help the hosts survive an early scare and escape a disappointing debut in front of a packed Itaquerao Stadium.
Brazil had a disastrous start when defender Marcelo found his own net while trying to clear a low cross by Ivica Olic in the 11th minute, but Neymar then showed why the nation’s high hopes are all pinned on him.
He equalised in the 29th minute, clearing a defender in midfield before making a run toward the edge of the area and firing a perfectly placed low shot that went in off the post.
The game turned on a controversial penalty awarded by Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura in the 71st minute when striker Fred went down inside the area under minimal contact from defender Dejan Lovren.
Neymar scored from the spot for his 33rd goal with Brazil. The Barcelona star got a standing ovation when he was substituted near the end of the match.
“It’s important to start these tournaments with the right foot, with a victory,” Neymar said. “I’ happy that I got to score, but the entire team deserves credit. We maintained our calm and showed we could battle back.”
The Croatians were furious.
“If that was a penalty, we should be playing basketball. Those kinds of fouls are penalised there,” Croatia coach Niko Kovac said claiming the referee was out of his depth on such a big stage, and risked making “a circus” of the World Cup.
“I usually never attack referees, but this time I can only say: shameful . . . He had one kind of criteria for them and another for us. The rules were not the same,” Kovac said.
As Croatia searched desperately for an equaliser, Oscar added to the lead in the first minute of injury time with a toe poke from just outside the penalty area.
Croatia had a few good chances toward the end and had a goal disallowed in the 83rd after the referee ruled Olic had fouled Brazil goalkeeper Julio Cesar.
The tournament finally got underway as planned after months of talk about the preparation problems that plagued Brazil since being picked as hosts seven years ago.
The troubled Itaquerao, which wasn’t fully finished for the opener, held up without major setbacks to fans or the match itself, although part of the lights atop the pitch went out a few times for brief periods in the first half.
Despite the support from most of the more than 62 100 fans in attendance, Brazil got off to a slow start and allowed Croatia to threaten early. They opened the scoring with one of their first chances as Marcelo failed to clear Olic’s cross. The ball was slightly redirected by striker Nikica Jelavic before the Brazilian defender touched it backward into the goal.
The penalty kick was awarded when Fred appeared to be tugged inside the area by Lovren. The Croats insisted Fred wasn’t touched and at least five Croatian players swarmed around Nishimura of Japan to protest.
Neymar converted his shot from the spot even though Croatia goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa touched the ball and nearly made the save.
Neymar had received a yellow card in the 27th for elbowing Real Madrid playmaker Luka Modric.
Brazil: Julio Cesar, Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Marcelo, Luiz Gustavo, Paulinho (Hernanes, 63), Oscar, Neymar (Ramires, 88), Hulk (Bernard, 68), Fred.
Croatia: Stipe Pletikosa, Sime Vrsaljko, Darijo Srna, Dejan Lovren, Vedran Corluka, Ivan Rakitic, Nikica Jelavic (Ante Rebic, 78), Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic, Ivica Olic, Mateo Kovacic (Marcelo Brozovic, 61).