Brazil tops Croatia in World Cup opener behind Neymar and a suspect call

The opening match of the World Cup, a 3-1 victory by Brazil over Croatia on Thursday night in front of a yellow-splashed sellout crowd at Arena de Sao Paulo, was decided by Neymar’s two goals and Oscar’s excellence, by Thiago Silva’s defensive work and Julio Cesar’s late save.

Croatia Coach Niko Kovac would add another name to the list: Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura, whose suspect call led to Neymar’s go-ahead penalty kick in the 71st minute.

“If that is how we start the World Cup,” Kovac said, “we may as well go home.”

Nishimura awarded the penalty when Fred went down casually in the box. Dejan Lovren had placed his hand on Fred’s shoulder, but the contact was not nearly enough to bring down the powerful striker. Croatia was also upset Nishimura allowed Neymar to remain in the match after elbowing Luka Modric on the head on an aerial challenge in the first half.

Nishimura pointed to the spot and, perhaps anticipating Croatia’s protests, quickly took his position at the end line. The Croatians followed en masse.

Neymar converted even though goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa guessed the direction correctly and got both hands on the ball. The velocity of the rising shot made it almost unstoppable.

“If that is a penalty, we don’t need to play football anymore,” Kovac continued. “Let’s play basketball. It’s a shame. . . . If we continue in this way, we will have a circus.”

Brazil Coach Felipe Luiz Scolari responded to his counterpart by saying: “Brazil has five world championships. So we have seen five world circuses.”

Asked to respond to Kovic’s contention that fans around the globe had not seen a true penalty, Scolari said: “Millions didn’t see the penalty? Well, the referee did. I watched it 10 times. For me, it was a penalty.”

“This is an outrage,” said Lovren, who suggested FIFA suspend Nishimura — advice that will fall on deaf ears.

The controversial sequence was part of a crackling and sometimes unusual match in front of 62,103 spectators. Under an almost full moon, one day short of Friday the 13th, a bank of lights went out and, while play continued, flickered back to life.

Brazil fell behind in the 11th minute on Marcelo’s own goal, the first by the Selecao during its glorious World Cup history.

If Brazil did not feel the immense pressure of hosting the sport’s quadrennial extravaganza before — and the expectation to win it 64 years since last staging the World Cup — the squad certainly felt it then.

It took 22-year-old attackers Neymar and Oscar, as well as the questionable call, to set matters straight and reset Brazil’s title hopes.

Neymar, from FC Barcelona, scored in the 29th and 71st minutes, and Oscar, from Chelsea, secured the three points in stoppage time.

Brazil harnessed the energy and emotion of the vibrant scene to set the terms, but Croatia probed for counterattacking opportunities, spearheaded by Modric. Despite the absence of suspended forward Mario Mandzukic, Croatia had come to play.

“If we had gone into the [defensive] bunker,” Kovac said, “we would have been crushed.”

Croatia’s pressure led to Marcelo’s own goal. Ivica Olic targeted Nikica Jelavic making a central run deep into the penalty area. Olic’s left-side cross met Jelavic, who failed to make solid contact. Julio Cesar, who plays for MLS’s Toronto FC, anticipated Jelavic redirecting the ball to the near corner and committed to his right.

However, the errant touch allowed the ball to continue across the six-yard box. Marcelo was in full stride marking on the back side and, with an instant to react, pushed the ball into the gaping net.

While pods of red-checkered Croatian supporters erupted in delight, the rest of the stadium — and surely a nation of 200 million — fell silent.

The Selecao responded with a fury, applying unbearable pressure.

In the 22nd minute, Neymar danced around Ivan Rakitic at the end line and crossed dangerously into the six-yard box. A clearance fell to Oscar for a blinding 22-yard shot that Pletikosa punched away.

The equalizer came seven minutes later. Oscar did the dirty work, keeping possession for Brazil amid a cluster of Croatians. He linked with Neymar, who charged at the heart of the defense and veered to his left before firing a low bid without peak pace but with perfect location to the far corner. It skimmed beyond Pletikosa’s reach and kissed the right post before settling into the net.

Neymar raced toward the bench. Scolari, known as “Big Phil” and the guide of the Selecao’s previous World Cup title 12 years ago, hugged his pupil like a proud grandfather embracing a child.

The Brazilian supporters broke into a Portuguese chant: “The champion is back!”

Order had been restored. Another goal, though, would have to wait.

Croatia withstood Brazil’s forays and was causing trouble again early in the second half. Olic tried to connect with Jelavic, but the forward did not make the run Olic wished. Olic had a tantrum, jumping up and down and gesturing at his teammate.

In the 65th minute, Neymar infiltrated central space before Vedran Corluka took him out with a hard tackle — a well-deserved yellow card.

The penalty kick was probably not deserved. Oscar supplied Fred with his back to the goal. Lovren reached out, leading to the exaggerated fall.

“Everybody is trying to do that,” Kovac said of Fred’s flop. “Like it or not, it’s part of football. I don’t blame the player; I blame the referee.”

Croatia’s hopes of Nishimura ruling in its favor were dashed in the 83rd minute when Olic was properly whistled for bumping Julio Cesar on a high ball, halting play before Ivan Perisic drove the ball into the net.

Modric followed with a rasping drive turned aside by the diving keeper, who was called upon again during stoppage time.

Oscar settled matters moments later on a counterattack, directing a low shot from the top of the box to the near left corner.

A stadium full of fans who had waited years for the World Cup to return to Brazil celebrated into the breezy evening.

Said Neymar: “I am even happier than I imagined I could be.”

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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