No team anywhere on the globe operates under the kind of unrelenting microscope put on Brazil in the sport of soccer.
So when Brazilian defender Marcelo misplayed a cross from Croatia’s Ivica Olic into a slowly rolled own-goal in the 11th minute of Brazil’s opening match of the World Cup Thursday afternoon, the entire country stood in stunned disbelief.
The disbelief could only last so long however. After all, this is Brazil we’re talking about. The same Brazil that has five times been crowned the world’s best. The same Brazil that produced enduring icon Pele. And it is the same Brazil that took the field all but assured of a victory even before walking into the pitch opposite their Croatian opponents Thursday. Or so they thought.
Therein lies the true danger for Brazil at this World Cup. Brazilian players have grown accustomed to the obsessive way their countrymen hang on every action and word of their soccer heroes. After generations of success, it’s simply become part of the job description for national team players. In return, Brazilian media and fans often tout forthcoming achievements for their squad. For them, this tournament probably felt like a similar setup to last summer’s Confederations Cup, in which Brazil breezed to the title with nary a problem.
But the World Cup is a different animal. For Brazil, it ups the ante. Hosting the World Cup increases the tension even more. And for 28 minutes against Croatia, the paralyzing pressure had coach Luis Felipe Scolari’s team in the crosshairs. They appeared indecisive and unsure of themselves, leading first to a golden chance for Ivica Olić early on before the own goal was behind veteran keeper Julio Cesar just moments later.
Thankfully, Brazil has Neymar. The 22-year-old striker with the stunning speed and knack for scoring goals came through in fine fashion. Two markers, the first on a well-placed strike in the 29th minute and the second from the penalty spot in the 71st, propelled Brazil to a deceiving 3-1 win in Sao Paulo.
Perhaps the fact that Brazil has Neymar is the best summation of what Brazil showcased in their opener. There is never any lack of skill on a Brazilian side and certainly this edition boasts plenty of gifted individuals. Playing at home with such talent was enough for most odds-makers to install the host country as favorites to ultimately hoist the trophy after the final on July 13th in Rio de Janeiro.
None of that mattered to Croatia on Thursday. Make no mistake, while Brazil has gleefully accepted the role of tourney favorite, their performance against Croatia left plenty to be desired. There were plenty of flat moments in which coach Niko Kovac’s team, playing without its best offensive player in Mario Mandzukic, appeared capable of getting a result against the hosts.
Was it the pressure? Was it the fact that of Brazil’s 11 starters on Thursday, only two had any previous World Cup experience? Both seem plausible. And that’s where Brazil may find that having Neymar is their saving grace. He, along with Oscar in the midfield, shrugged off the stress to combine for all three Brazilian tallies at Arena Corinthians.
It wouldn’t be at all surprising if Brazil was more focused and attentive for their next match on June 17th against Mexico in Fortaleza. Long tournaments such as the World Cup often come down to adjustments and Scolari will no doubt attempt to settle his team a bit before taking on El Tri.
Nevertheless, Thursday’s performance revealed some chinks in the armor of the favorites, most of which seemed to come from the fevered pitch of anticipation following the squad in recent weeks. Brazil had better get used to it because the pressure of expectations isn’t going anywhere and in the end, their fate may rest on managing it all. Are Brazil a true challenger? Of course. Are they a sure thing? Far from it. And you can bet Spain, Argentina, Germany and the other favorites are watching.