More questions than answers for Scolari and Brazil after opener

Tom Hennigan reports from in São Paulo after opening night jitters for the hosts

Luiz Felipe Scolari of Brazil shakes hands with Neymar as he comes off the field in the second half. Photograph: Getty Images

Luiz Felipe Scolari of Brazil shakes hands with Neymar as he comes off the field in the second half. Photograph: Getty Images

 

The problems Brazil has faced in getting ready for this World Cup have been well aired during its build-up.

But in marked contrast to the doubts over the country’s preparedness for the event off the field since last year’s romp to the Confederations Cup, confidence had been growing among Brazilians at the chances of the five times world champions winning a sixth title on it. So last night’s stuttering 3-1 win by the favourites against Croatia will have come as an unpleasant reality check for most Brazilian fans.

The authority and fluency of the Confederations campaign was missing at the Itaquerão stadium in São Paulo and the hosts relied on a soft penalty to bail them out of trouble in a hard-fought and at times niggly opening match.

Croatia had clearly showed up unwilling to play its appointed role as this opening ceremony’s sacrificial goat. A break in the 11th minute and a dangerous ball across Brazil’s goalmouth and suddenly they were

1-0 up thanks to the unfortunate Marcelo turning the ball into his own net.

There was a sudden intake of breath by the home crowd that had until then been raucous. Shortly afterwards part of the stadium’s floodlighting system failed as dusk gathered and it seemed all the off-field problems during the tournament’s build-up threatened to spill over onto the pitch.

But the reaction from the normally fickle São Paulo crowd was exemplary. Less than a week ago the city’s fans whistled the team for failing to score after 15 minutes against Serbia in the team’s last warm-up game. Here they got behind the players, helping drive them on in pursuit of an equaliser.

They were rewarded in the 29th minute goal with a brilliant goal from the team’s undisputed star Neymar. From just outside the box he placed a beautiful shot in off the right post past the despairing dive of Croatian keeper Stipe Pletikosa.

The relief that coursed through the crowd was palpable. But the equaliser was not the signal for Brazil to take control of the match.

There were moments rather than steady control from Neymar and Oscar, the Chelsea attacker putting in his best performance for some time in a Brazil top, perhaps aware of growing calls for him to be dropped in favour of his clubmate Willian. But the stalemate was only broken when Fluminenese striker Fred went down in the 70th minute under the faintest of touches. Neymar scored from the resulting penalty and with Croatia pushing for an equaliser Oscar scored late on the break to confirm the win.

The crowd ended the night with a chorus of ‘Olés’ but this was an unconvincing 3-1 victory that leaves Luiz Felipe Scolari with a number of dilemmas perhaps most pressingly whether to persist with Tottenham midfielder Paulinho. Central to last year’s triumph in the Confederations Cup here he was peripheral and eventually replaced by Inter Milan’s Hernanes.

If Brazil made a sputtering start on the field, off it the day ran relatively smoothly. A city holiday and the decision by metro workers not to strike meant there were few of the predicted problems reaching the ground for the 62,103 fans and journalists attending the game.

There were also signs that at last Brazilians were ready to embrace their role as hosts. In the hours before the game many people decked out in the national colours took advantage of the day off work to take to the streets, letting off fireworks and blowing fog horns in the first real signs of popular enthusiasm for a tournament that has been clouded by criticism.

There were as expected there protests in several host cities across Brazil by groups opposed to the billions of euro in public money spent on preparing for the tournament.

But in contrast to the Confederations Cup last year and despite polls showing that a majority of Brazilians believe hosting the tournament is bad for the country the protests failed to mobilise large numbers.

In São Paulo several hundred people demonstrated along one of the main roads linking the centre of the city to the stadium. There were clashes after police said they were forced to intervene when a group attempted to block a main avenue linking the centre of the city to the stadium.

The resulting confusion left several people injured and forced a shopping centre to shut its doors and the temporary closure of a metro station, inconveniencing some fans heading to the match. Demonstrators said they were prevented from following a route agreed with police who instead attacked them with tear gas and rubber bullets. There were also confrontations between police and demonstrators in Rio de Janeiro, the location of the final on July 13th.

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