Neymar nets two goals as Brazil tops Croatia in World Cup opener
BY NANCY ARMOUR USA TODAY Sports June 12, 2014 5:00PM
SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - JUNE 12: Neymar of Brazil dribbles past Ivan Perisic of Croatia in the first half during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group A match between Brazil and Croatia at Arena de Sao Paulo on June 12, 2014 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
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Updated: June 12, 2014 5:39PM
SAO PAULO, Brazil — Neymar was as good as advertised.
And then some.
Shrugging off the pressure that comes with his iconic No. 10 and being the face of this World Cup, Neymar scored two goals on Thursday night and ensured that Brazil’s long-awaited party got off to the right start. After looking so stoic all game, Neymar let loose after scoring on a penalty in the 71st minute, dropping to his knees and raising both index fingers in the air.
As the crowd serenaded him, he raised both his arms into the air, urging the 62,103 fans to get even more rowdy. Not that they needed any excuse. Oscar added an insurance goal in the 90th, and the 3-1 victory over Croatia puts the five-time champions in good position to advance from Group A.
Croatia, meanwhile, can’t afford any more slip-ups if it hopes to make the knockout rounds. After allowing Neymar’s second goal, Croatian goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa put his hands to his head and then slapped the ground.
After years of anger and frustration over delays and cost overruns â(euro) “ and the embarrassment they caused Brazil â(euro) “ the host country’s fans were ready to party ahead of Thursday’s opener. Though there were small protests in Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte, everyone in Sao Paulo was in a festive mood. The selecao’s trademark canary yellow was the uniform of the day, and a group of Brazilian fans broke into the national anthem on a train to the Itaquerao.
And when the anthem played for real before the game, the fans sang so loudly they drowned out the recording and it was eventually turned off.
But the game couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start for Brazil â(euro) “ appropriate, really, considering the troubled run-up to the World Cup. In the 11th minute, Marcelo tried to clear a ball in front of the Brazil goal only to knock it backward and into his own net.
Goalkeeper Julio Cesar, on the opposite side of the goal, could only watch as the ball rolled into the netting. It was the first own goal conceded by Brazil in its illustrious World Cup history.
But Neymar wasn’t about to let anything spoil Brazil’s big moment.
Once questioned for his immaturity and petulance on the field, Neymar has grown into a deserving heir to the No. 10 jersey that Pele once wore. He is the face not only of his team, but of this World Cup, featured prominently in ads for Beats and Nike. His smiling face graces signs all over Sao Paulo, and even folks who don’t know soccer can recognize his signature hairstyle, which looks something like a cross between a mullet and a Mohawk.
As impressive as he’s been off the field, however, he was even better on it. He and Oscar repeatedly teamed up to pepper Pletikosa and, two minutes after picking up a yellow card for a hard foul on Luka Modric, he finally broke through in the 29th minute.
Oscar won a battle at the midfield and slipped it to Neymar, who left one Croatian on the ground as he dribbled up the field. With two more Croatians in front of him, he took a left-footed shot from about 28 yards out. Pletikosa dove, but the ball slid beneath his outstretched hand, banked off the far post and settled into the net, setting off celebrations across Brazil.
While Julio Cesar let out a roar and gave an emphatic fist pump and his teammates celebrated, the look on Neymar’s face was pure cool, as if to say, “That’s why I’m here.”
He added an insurance goal after Croatia’s Dejan Lovren put his hand on Fred’s shoulder in the penalty area â(euro) “ an automatic no-no. Neymar lined up at the spot and stutter-stepped, and the ball banged off Pletikosa’s hands and into the net.