Lee Wellings: The weight of Neymar’s vital goal

So just how historically significant will it turn out to be?

The moment Neymar’s left-foot shot from 22 metres eluded Pletikosa’s outstretched hand, hit a post and trickled across the line.

‘It’s only a game of football’ is a line we have all heard before. Never could it be less fitting than Brazil’s opening match in the 2014 World Cup.

Defeat against Croatia, or even a draw, could have had nasty consequences on the streets of Brazil, which had been a crazy cocktail of emotions in the hours, days and weeks building up to kick-off.

Before I arrived in Brazil I was in no doubt of the level of opposition to the tournament. The understandable concerns over cost, the antipathy to FIFA, the uncertainty over the Government having the best interests of the people as their motivation for bringing the tournament here and throwing money at it.

Spending time in Rio helps understand the strange mix of emotions a Brazilian is going through about the hosting of this tournament. It was too simplistic to think months of protest, often violent, on the streets of Brazil would subside and a carnival atmosphere would take over with each goal sparking a national party.

Instead people said they would watch in their homes, or local bars and yes they would don the yellow and green, yes they would jump and scream and bite their nails, but no joy. No Party. No overwhelming sense of pride. Not yet anyway.

So just imagine how crushing defeat would have been. Imagine how incendiary.

The clue to this came in response to victory. Where I was broadcasting in Copacabana there were thousands relieved, happy fans at the ‘fanfest’ but yards away sporadic protests and pockets of violence between protesters and the police. Helicopters (five of them) circled the beach. Police cars formed barricades. Groups of police confronted those still determined to make their point about the social concerns around this World Cup. A bad result would have provided all the fuel needed to turn small fires into a blaze.

Witness the utter relief of President Dilma Rousseff when Brazil scored. Under pressure for the tournament spending, booed at the opening ceremony, her response to goals was a huge contrast to politicians barely able to contain their indifference. This mattered. She knows her popularity, her future (there’s an election here in October) is now in the hands of the team. Pure and simple. Men kicking a ball around a pitch at the cost of a projected $13 billion.

So what a strange role Croatia played in all of this. A talented team, I’d seen how technically gifted they were watching them play Switzerland in St Gallen in March. They were, let’s be honest, absolutely robbed. By a diving Brazilian (Fred). And an incompetent referee (Yuichi Nishimura) who bottled it.

If Neymar had been sent off, as he should have been, for elbowing Modric he wouldn’t have been able to score his game changer. And how significant might that have been for this tournament’s place in history? For the nation of Brazil. For FIFA.

As things stand Brazil could go on and win this with Neymar in the thick of it. And hosting the tournament, while remaining contentious, would have given something precious to a nation whose love of football is no cliche.

But Neymar got away with it…and so did Brazil. For now. Neymar’s goal was the huge shaft of light the Brazilians craved. It’s too early to say if it’s the turning point in public perception. But it was vital.

Remember the film Sliding Doors? How different a life would have been if a subway door had shut the other side of a character. Imagine if Neymar hadn’t scored and Brazil hadn’t won. From Rio, typing amongst police sirens and helicopter noise, I predict it could have been very ugly.

But maybe in many years time films and books on the Brazil World Cup 2014 will describe Neymar’s goal as having had a heavyweight effect on sport, politics and social affairs.

Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him ten.a1635169183reeza1635169183jla@s1635169183gnill1635169183ew.ee1635169183lta1635169183. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport