It began with heartbreak. Crunch, it should have echoed. But echoes are only heard in silent environs, which the Arena Corinthians was anything but. The supporters draped in the red-and-white checks of Croatia were loud, very loud. They didn’t even let a nation mourn in peace, with their chants of ‘Croooo-aaa-sia-sia-sia’ thundering about a shell-shocked Sao Paulo.
As early as the 10th minute of the opening game, Croatia sliced open a shaky Brazil defence and collective aortas with one incisive move. Ivan Rakitic found Ivica Olic, Croatia’s 34-year old playmaker, wandering about a vacant left-flank, setting him free in Dani Alves’s absence. Alves sometimes forgets that he’s a defender after all, but Olic knows his role. He rifled down the empty corridor and clipped in a cross to Nikica Jelavic, hacking Brazil’s centre-halves of captain Thiago Silva and David Luiz in two.
Jelavic fumbled his chance, but sweeper Marcelo didn’t. The ball ricocheted off the back of the Brazil and Real Madrid man’s shin and trickled past a blindsided ’keeper Julio Cesar. The World Cup had gotten off to a most miserable start for the gracious hosts.
Brazil must have cursed the devil for writing this script. But he knew what he was scripting, this devil. The shock revived Brazil electro-convulsively. And there must have been a wicked twinkle in his eye as the match hurtled forward from there on at breakneck speed, along the way ticking every box of a template thriller — an own goal followed by an exquisite equaliser, a controversial penalty, a disallowed goal and a late hurrah, all of which ended in the five-time winners’ favour.
In the end, Brazil had scored four times on the night to win 3-1. A nation sighed, relieved and slept with three points under their pillow. The Croatians, on the other hand, stayed awake thinking of what could have been. Yes, they controlled play in Brazil’s half for long quarters of the first half, they must have thought. But there’s only so much one can do against a team that has 13 men on the field.
Despite the own goal, the crowd rallied behind the Selecao as the proverbial twelfth man. And by pandering to their every need and call, referee Yuichi Nishimura from Japan was the unlucky thirteenth for Croatia. So, with the ref by their side and the roar of support on their backs, two players from Brazil’s original eleven — Neymar Jr and Oscar — lifted the moral of an otherwise nervy side with some breathtaking play.
A wise man once said that a lot can happen within 90 minutes. Here, almost all the drama continued…