by Christopher Beard
The lead-up to events like this can give you chills, whether you want it to happen or not. I’m not a Brazilian fan, and like most Americans, I’ve come to soccer late (I am going to henceforth call it football, to make this blog more legit). Nonetheless, yesterday felt magical, and I loved it. I wasn’t sure if I was cheering for Brazil, or for the underdogs–I was just happy seeing the game played. This euphoric feeling always changes as the game(s) go on, and I’ll get to that, but first: that anthem.
Even rather ugly or cacophonous anthems will stir you when sixty thousand lunatics sing them, but for Brazil, whose anthem is already beautifully rousing, it felt bigger, as if something more than pride were driving that moment. And that’s true. Yesterday, one could also see a pronounced nervousness in the jubilant faces of the crowd, and in the strained faces of the players. Energy, joy, excitement, of course—but there was also a powerful sense of determination, and pensive expectation. On one hand, Brazil’s level of expectation is like many other countries: they expect to win. But Brazil will feel that weight to a greater degree than any other team in this tournament (perhaps more so than any team in any World Cup in recent memory), and not only in the opener. How they deal with that pressure going forward will be the mitigating factor to their immense talent.
Ah, but then we were off! Sort of. The anthem, punctuated with cheers. A referee explaining a coin. Then, three frightened doves released into the large, deafening stadium [sidenote: whenever we do this, to display our peacefulness and our love of ceremonial hoopla, the birds are usually sent into an extremely loud, chaotic atmosphere. I imagine they are thinking something like: “We’re free! Agghhhh! Am I dead? Where am I? Oh Fuck oh fuck oh fuck!”] And with that, we begin the biggest sporting event in the world (not sure if this is true, but it feels right).
Roberto Martinez, ESPN’s soccer pre-game man, astutely noted that “if Croatia doesn’t score in the first 20 minutes, I just think they got not chance to win this football game.” This assertion nearly came to pass. To Brazil’s dismay, barely 10 minutes in, a harmless looking cross threads through four (four!) Brazilian defenders, none of whom seemed all too concerned about it—then off Marcelo’s foot and into the net for Brazil’s first own goal in World Cup history. 1-0 Croatia! Somewhere, somebody just won a good deal of a money on a prop bet.
But when the underdog takes an early lead, everyone knows 80 minutes is too much time for the favorite to take the game back. Indeed, after Croatia’s first fifteen or so tenacious and irreverent minutes, Brazil began to push back. First came Oscar’s cross (and Neymar’s jump-kick near miss), then Neymar’s strong work along the goal line (and Oscar’s strong shot from distance) a few minutes later. At the twenty minute mark, it was already unfathomable that Brazil would not score.
Finally, amidst a sloppy Croatian midfield, Neymar pulled free and hammered the ball—which shanked and spun lightly, magically between the keeper and the goalpost. Commentator Ian Darke then prompted us to “look at the relief! Look at it!” as the game had been tied at 1. And of course it’s Neymar. If Brazil gets its way, they will play all 7 games. How many goals can Neymar score? He is going to fun to watch for a long, long time.
Unfortunately, this game will ultimately be known for a bad call. People who hate the sport often cite the miserable acting displays that sully the game (Mike Goodman succinctly explains the existence and persistence of diving in the sport here (scroll to bottom of page)). But as a fan of the game, what I hate is how these refereeing controversies can overwrite, steal, or become the story of the game. For 22 hours, from the conclusion of game 1 until the next one starts, every sports news outlet in America spends about 2 minutes, at most, covering the game. The story? The call. And it has to be that way, because the whole game hinged on that play.
But they tell you how to deal with officials in any sport: be respectful and try to ignore what you can’t control. Just play the game. And so it goes—heartbreak for the Croatians, and sheepish joy from the Brazilians. After a blatant dive by the exotically named Brazilian Fred, Neymar takes a penalty kick. He winds up, stutter steps, and pegs the keeper, Stipe Pletikosa, in the hands. Nonetheless, it powers just past him, skirts the post and goes in, and Neymar has two.
It’s a tough game to call, and it’s especially tough to ref a game this big, but the official made a horrendous mistake, and Croatians are likely to hate the fact that he stared straight at the play as he brutally misjudged it. Less talked about (everything else in the game was less talked about), later, in the 83rd minute, the whistle blew in the midst of a Croation scoring chance. The midfielder Rakitic crossed it to the far post where the forward Olic leaped to contend for the ball. The Brazilian keeper, Cesar, falls, and the referee calls another questionable (if not phantom) foul. It might have been his key “save,” as Cesar had an otherwise shaky game, and is regarded as Brazil’s weakest link.
Oscar scored a late–a deserved goal with a gorgeous run, even if the Pletikosa wasn’t at his best on the play. Ultimately, the 3-1 final score doesn’t exactly reflect how well Croatia played, but it is the score that counts even if they deserved better. What this means for them going forward is a much tougher road out of the group stage. A one goal loss could have positioned them to a comfortable 2nd place, and a trip to the next round, as no one in the group is expected to beat Brazil. Instead—Mexico and Cameroon are looking to sneak by with a better result.
On Friday, the two week marathon of daily triple and quadruple-headers begins with that very matchup between El Tri and the Indomitable Lions. Don’t know who to cheer for? Let their team songs help you decide… Cameroon vs. Mexico.