As dusk fell over Sao Paulo’s spanking new stadium towards the end of the first half of the World Cup’s eagerly awaited kickoff, FIFA president Sepp Blatter and his organisation must have felt the same as the rest of us.
Amidst a sea of yellow and a cauldron of noise, here was an opening match full of entertainment and adventure in contrast to the cautious, cat-and-mouse approach that so often fails to deliver at the start of the biggest sporting show on earth for fear of errors being made and confidence being damaged.
Both teams, Brazil and Croatia, had contrived to put on a spectacle to be remembered. The headlines were going to be all about one of the most entertaining World Cup opening fixtures in history. Then – disappointingly, unfairly and infuriatingly – the script changed. Not for the first time, an over-zealous referee got in on the act and everything went downhill, for Croatia at least, thereafter.
Referees make mistakes as we all know but FIFA, in the buildup to the tourmament, were at pains to assure us that only the best officials had been selected. Indeed they had been put through their paces in terms of what to watch out for in a series of workshops.
So why did Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura forget his lines? Indeed why, one might ask, was he appointed for this particular game? There is history, you see, with Nishimura and Brazil. He was the referee who gave Brazil nothing against Holland four years ago in South Africa when they were eliminated in the quarterfinals. Was he trying to redress the balance? Not consciously of course but at the back of his mind, who knows?
The result, whatever his thinking by awarding Brazil the softest of penalties with the score at 1-1 and 20 minutes to go, is that Croatia were the fall guys. The eventual 3-1 scoreline was cruel on the visitors whose manager, Niko Kovac, raged that Nishimura had been “out of his depth” and that “if we continue this way we will have a circus with 100 penalties.”
“If that’s how we start the World Cup, we better give it up now and go home,” added Kovac. “Brazil and Croatia have top-notch players and for an opening game we needed a top-notch referee. We talk about respect, that wasn’t respect, Croatia didn’t get any. If that’s a penalty, we don’t need to play football anymore. Let’s play basketball instead.”
He stopped short of pointing the finger at Fred who went down in a heap after the merest of touches by Dejan Lovren but got as close as he could to accusing the striker of play-acting. “I don’t see how someone of his build could be brought to the ground in such a manner.”
This wasn’t the first World Cup, of course, at which the host nation received the rub of the green. The fact is you need luck to go your way to win a World Cup. Think 1966 and England, for example. Tournament winners invariably start slowly but there was a tangible feeling that Brazil had got away with one. Indeed there were at least two other occasions when Croatia should have been treated equally, and weren’t.
It was all such a shame. Because after a colourful opening ceremony, the atmosphere had built to a crescendo with 60,000 fans making the mother of all dins. Croatia’s early lead was just what the game needed for the neutrals and if two-goal Neymar, quick of mind and slick of feet, quite rightly won the man of the match award ahead of the equally dynamic Oscar, Croatia deserved considerable credit for so nearly earning the draw many felt they deserved and which they might have got late on but for a questionable foul on keeper Julio Cesar.
Yet despite Croatia’s ill-fortune there was something special about watching Brazil in Brazil. They have a toxic mixture of skill and self-belief with a coach Luiz Filipe Scolari who puts a friendly arm around the lot of them, literally and metaphorically. Unless something goes drastically wrong they must surely pick up a sixth crown if they can sort out a few glitches at the back.
But before we get too carried away, the other side of the World Cup reared its ugly head at precisely the wrong time. In the buildup to kickoff, police were using tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets to break up a protest blockade by 300 demonstrators near a metro station along one of the stadium routes. Police reports claimed one arrest and five injuries, three of them journalists covering the incident.
Neither the Brazilian government nor the World Cup organisers want such incidents to overshadow the tournament itself but the reality is, it will probably continue, such is the depth of feeling among many lower-paid and unemployed people that basic services like health and education are being ignored.
But back to the football. There is one massive irony that might have gone unnoticed. During this week’s FIFA Congress, Blatter had heads shaking when he suggested out of the blue that managers should perhaps be given two appeals, tennis-style, against contentious decisions. If that had been applied Thursday night, we may well have a different outcome.
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of the The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact Andrew at email@example.com