Some teams must beat their opponents, others themselves.
Brazil, a strong contender at any international tournament, this year with the advantage of playing at home, must be considered the favorite for victory in the 2014 Word Cup. Given just how many stars are aligned to their benefit, but also given the tremendous pressure that the assumption of domination carries, it seemed somehow appropriate that the first score in their first match was an own goal.
The match started with the typical jitters. First game, first day, and first World Cup for at least two of the players who proved to play a decisive role in Brazil's victory. The early minutes were indecisive to say the least, barely played at the typical level of either (or any world-class) team. Then, in the eleventh minute, the own goal, a deflection off the foot of Marcello, who was racing to defend against an excellent Croatian cross. Had Brazil become deflated after this event, any commentator could have been provided an easy symbol, the own goal standing for a collapse under the extreme pressure that the Brazilian team faces. But this was not to be. In fact, the goal seemed to have a calming effect. Finally, the game could start.
The initial stages of the first half were characterized by aggressive Brazilian attempts to even the score, and all credit is due, at least in this portion of the game, to the level-headedness of Croatian keeper Pletikosa, whose saves at crucial moments both helped to undermine the aforementioned Brazilian attack and provided the basis for the sporadic yet dangerous counter-attacks mounted by the Croatians. The next goal of the match, a well-placed shot to the corner by Brazlian star Neymar, evened the score, but did little to overcome the resolve of the Croatians, who continued to keep pace with the Brazilians even as their counter-attacking strategy left them without control of the ball for the majority of the match.
Heading into the second half, it could have been, proverbially, anyone's game, and yet, in hindsight, it wasn't. Croatia's strategy was to attempt to make the most of a limited number of chances, while Brazil's was to maximize the number of chances in total, and the law of averages, at least this time, worked in Brazil's favor.
That's not to say the fight was over. After ten minutes of meandering play, the second half began in earnest, and the pace began to quicken as both sides sensed opportunity. Neither side could afford to let up; a draw was not in the cards. And it was, eventually, and forgive this segue, a card that would prove decisive as, in the 69th minute, contact between Croatian Lovren and Brazilian Fred resulted in a yellow card for Lovren and a penalty kick for Brazil. A controversial call to say the least, especially given the stakes. Regardless (or not), Neymar, with a near-save by Pletikosa notwithstanding, converted for Brazil and put his team ahead by one. It's here, in the 70th minute of the game, that I started to realize, and perhaps the Croatians began to sense it too, that, even though the score was 2-1, it was Brazil, in fact, who had scored all of the goals.
The last twenty minutes of the game were characterized by heavy attacking from the Croatians, and some agile counterattacking from the Brazilians, almost to the extent that one could describe the roles of the two teams being reversed from what they had been at the start of the match. The results, however, stayed the same. Croatia had a few close opportunities, including one involving another, well, arguable yet decisive call by the referee, but, ultimately, Brazil scored one more time, appropriately enough, or ironically enough, on a breakaway by Oscar, who took his shot at just the right moment, denying both the oncoming defenders behind him and the keeper in front of him the chance to make a play on the ball. That goal, in the 92nd minute, made the victory a decisive one instead of an ambiguous one.
Ultimately, the first match of the 2014 World Cup provided plenty of excitement and just a hint of controversy. While not quite playing with the absolute dominance demanded of them, Brazil showed at least that they do have the capacity to be the team everyone expects them to be, while the Croatian team, in their steadfast resilience, showed that they were capable of moving on from their group. While nobody will be surprised if Brazil wins it all, it may be that a few teams will find themselves at home, er, suprisingly prematurely if Croatia continues to play as they did today. It's going to be a good tournament.