When is a fix not a fix? It’s a riddle, for sure, and it’s a question that many people will be asking in all seriousness after the host nation Brazil eventually overcame an impressive performance by Croatia to win by three goals to one in Sao Paulo last night. The host nation are up and running, but they only did so with considerable assistance from the rub of the green, and they will have to improve if they wish to find a way past better opposition than that which they faced last night.
Meanwhile, protests against the tournament being held there in the first place rumbled on, and we should offer a little credit to ITV for not shying away from this. Not only were these protests referenced more than once during their broadcast last night, but a short report on them laid out the protesters’ objections with straightforward clarity. All of this, coupled with Brazil’s shakiness once the football actually got going, led to a curiously uneasy opening day to the tournament. When we factor in the growing unhappiness at Sepp Blatter’s decision to renege upon surrendering his fiefdom and the lazy and ignorant comments which followed this, such a sense of unease is probably completely appropriate.
Even if we discount the theory that there was no conspiracy against Croatia last night (strings of bad decisions can happen, and without proof a conspiracy can only remain a conspiracy), alarm bells might be ringing in Zagreb today at the performance of goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa, who might or should have got to all three of Brazil’s goals, and it’s likely that there will be considerable disappointment in their camp at the final result. This, after all, wasn’t merely a match that they took the lead in before being steamrollered. This was a match that they could or should have taken a result from.
After an opening ceremony that might have been subtitled “Tron In The Rainforest” and an explosive rendition of the Brazilian national anthem which most likely shook the still setting concrete of the stadium to its foundations, Brazil looked nervy, and these nerves reached their climax when Marcelo turned the ball past his own goalkeeper to give Croatia the lead. For a while, it looked as if the surprise result might be on, and even after Neymar levelled things up with a daisy cutter which crept past Pletikosa and in at a pace best described as “glacial”, Brazil’s defence looked nervy enough for the superstitious to turn their attention to the ghosts of 1950. There was nothing inevitable about their eventual win.
A series of poor refereeing decisions regarding ended up turning the tide on this match. Neymar was booked for cracking his elbow into the face of Luka Modric and received a yellow card for his troubles rather than the red that he probably merited. Brazil’s penalty kick, which turned out to be the axle upon which the match pivoted, was given for an almost non-existent bit of grabbing on Fred inside the penalty area. On another day, even his resulting kick might have been saved by Pletikosa, who got first one hand and then the other on the ball but couldn’t keep it out of his goal. And then Croatia had a goal disallowed for a challenge on Julio Cesar which spared the goalkeeper’s blushes at the ball having squirmed through his hands. Brazil’s third goal, scored after a lengthy run and toepoke by Oscar, came in stoppage time against an exhausted defence and again with a shot that a more complete goalkeeper might have reached.
By convention moderate starters in these tournaments Brazil should improve over time, but their defensive performance leaves significant question marks over how they will cope against more inspired opposition. This, when we consider the unanimity with which pre-tournament predictions foresaw this team sweeping all before them to eventual and inevitable victory in the Maracana, can only be A Good Thing for the 2014 World Cup Finals. Croatia, who found providence to most definitely not be on their side last night, will now be hoping that Brazil’s good fortune continues to hold in their remaining two group matches.
Classic World Cup Match Of The Day
Every morning, we’ll be bringing you a classic match from the past. This morning, the then-defending champions Brazil take on Bulgaria at Goodison Park in Liverpool in, of course, 1966, a tournament which turned out to be the last time that they were knocked out in the opening group stage of the competition.
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