Three brief observations from yesterday’s World Cup opener in Sao Paulo: Firstly, as an observer fully aware of the importance of Brazil progressing and progressing nicely through to the end of this competition, so as to limit the effect of inevitable riots and protests occurring across the country in response to Brazil’s wasteful spending – this was a promising start. It seems clear if the World Cup is going to placate the country’s incensed population, not only do Brazil have to win, but the entire competition will have to be considerably more entertaining than the previous two editions, and if the first game was anything like a realistic indicator, I’d say there’s a good chance of that happening.
This was a fast paced, open and fascinating opening game. The Croats played exceptionally, despite being underdogs in every sense, making a contest of the game until the final minutes and often looking even more composed and confident on the ball than their opponents in key areas. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic showed all of their quality in midfield, while Coach Niko Kovac set his team up perfectly to exploit Brazil’s weakness in defending the flanks.
But Brazil impressed also despite playing nowhere close to as well as we know they can. Last summer, Phil Scolari’s team won the Confederations Cup without once falling behind; many wondered how this side would react to being forced to chase a game against strong opposition. And now whilst much improvement is clearly needed over the next 31 days if the Selecao are to be victorious, atleast they’ve proved to themelves they’re capable of scraping the necessary results, should everything not immediately go to plan.
Secondly, as a largely neutral observer concerned about the integrity of the eventual outcome of the tournament, it has to be pointed out, the level of refereeing in yesterday’s game was atrocious. To say Yuichi Nishimura looked out of his depth would be a rather gracious explication. The decision to award a foul on Julio Cesar by Ivica Olic in the build up to what would’ve been Croatia’s equaliser was bizarre; the penalty awarded to Fred was simply a joke. But even beyond these incidents, every 50-50 decision went Brazil’s way, with the Croatians penalised for every minor indiscretion, with the home side very rarely (if ever) treated as harshly.
Kovac’s comments after the game were spot on, “Brazil and Croatia played a great opening match, but the referee was completely out of his depth.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with that particular referee but with the fact that we are here in Brazil and Brazil are huge favourites to win the World Cup. Whenever you play somewhere the hosts might have an advantage, but we are playing football – the rules of the game apply to both teams. FIFA’s slogan is ‘respect’ – respect for both teams and this is what we are after. If we continue in this way we will have a circus. I am not the sort of person to blame referees but we are the first to play Brazil so I have to say it: things have to improve.”
Surely only few would begrudge seeing Brazil crowned winners next month. Though should they continue to benefit from refereeing performances to the extent they did last night, the level of neutral support and respect their victory receives will be severely, and rightly, diminished.
Thirdly and finally, as a Chelsea supporting observer, it seems necessary to point out that Oscar was the game’s best player by a considerable distance. Even before his clever late goal, and in a position we’ve rarely seen him play, throughout the game he was at his minimalistic, yet instrumental best. The Chelsea man showed his pace, continually taking on and going past Sime Vrsaljko and whipping in dangerous crosses. He demonstrated his phenomenal vision and creativity, assisting Neymar for the equaliser and almost playing through Paulinho in the first half also.
No matter how well Oscar plays it seems he is destined to become no more than fringe player in what was always going to be ‘Neymar’s tournament’. Brazil’s two obvious flaws – poor at defending the flanks and over-reliance on Neymar – were both painstakingly obvious last night. And with neither likely to be seriously addressed throughout the competition, Oscar’s continuation of this form, is absolutely vital for his country. With Luis Gustavo forced to play a hugely restrictive role to help cover for the full backs, and Paulinho being a powerful but technically limited runner, Oscar performing well is the difference between serious question marks arising over this midfield and it looking like the settled, balanced outfit Scolari has trusted for his entire reign so far.