With twenty minutes to go in the World Cup opener, the entire tournament was in big trouble. With violent, disruptive protests and strikes preceding the game in Sao Paolo stealing the headlines, a disjointed and tired Brasil was searching chaotically, in vain, for a path to a scoring opportunity, while the elegant Croatian midfield duo Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic was asserting control in the middle of the pitch. Croatia had played with conviction and was well positioned to produce the tournament’s first big surprise, deservedly so. Brazil’s president, Dilma Rouseff, was watching anxiously and surely thinking about how much a poor Brazil showing would galvanize the protesters and further raise questions about the tournament’s fate in the next days and weeks. Then Fred changed the script.
The Brazilian forward, who had done nothing to that point, received a ball in the penalty area and as he turned to set up a shot he expertly simulated a pull-down by Croatian defender Dejan Lovren. To be fair to the Japanese referee who awarded the penalty kick, Fred’s fall was so convincing that it is entirely reasonable to justify the call as simple human error. Fred feigned the pull-down perfectly, with limited contact. On a different stage the call would not matter so much. But with the whole world watching, the referee had to be sure before changing the game’s outcome. Replay after replay confirmed the soft penalty call, but vehement Croatian protests could not reverse it.
Divine justice was the only saviour for the Croats and it almost came when Neymar’s feeble effort barely got through. The Croatian keeper guessed right and got a hand on the ball, but still could not keep the ball out of his own net. From there on Croatia pushed for an equalizer and came close a couple of times before scoring what seemed to be a good goal that was very arguably disallowed. Oscar’s superb individual effort near the end punctuated the not so much Brazil’s triumph, but the stability of the tournament, at least for the time being. The streets of Rio were flooded after the game, this time with jubilant fans celebrating their team’s victory. The protesters are gone for now and will lose public support as long as Brazil is on course to win the World Cup. But Brazil’s performance in the opener provided no assurance that they won’t resurface.