Neymar lives up to his star billing as Brazil’s golden boy
Dubious penalty decision turns the game in hosts’ favour, as they come from behind to delight fans
Neymar celebrates his opening goal against Croatia. Photograph: Murad Sezer/Reuters
A few minutes into the warm-up before Brazil v Croatia, Neymar slipped on the freshly-watered pitch and went over on his ankle. He rolled on the ground in apparent agony. The physio approached with the hesitant steps of a man who is struggling to compute what he is seeing.
Neymar had had a great World Cup build-up. He’s plastered over about 50 per cent of Brazil’s available ad space, he’s posing with Gisele on the cover of Vogue, he was charming at the pre-match press conference. Was that to be as good as it got?
Fortunately, Neymar recovered and barely half an hour later he was standing on the field staring with horror as Marcelo bundled the ball into his own net to give Croatia the lead.
The goal teed the match up beautifully for Neymar lovers and Neymar sceptics alike. Could he turn the tide for Brazil?
On 27 minutes, Neymar glanced around deliberately at Luka Modric, then smashed the Croat in the jaw with his forearm under a dropping ball. The referee, Yuichi Nishimura, ran to brandish the yellow card. The enraged Croats ran after the referee: if it was a yellow, then surely it had to be a red. The referee waved them away, not for the last time.
Neymar seized his redemption less than two minutes later.
Oscar slipped the ball between two opponents in midfield and Neymar’s first touch nicked it forward into space. He skipped over the sliding challenge of Perisic, darted diagonally to his left, and from 25 yards out hit a left-footed shot through the legs of Lovren that made up in precision what it lacked in power.
The ball had just enough speed to elude the outstretched left hand of Pletikosa and bounce in off the post.
Lovren threw his head back in frustration; he couldn’t believe Neymar had scored from that position. He wasn’t the only one.
As the Brazilian players ran to celebrate with Scolari and the substitutes, the striker Fred stood in the centre circle, gesturing to his team-mates to calm down.
His movement had been vital in opening the door for Neymar’s goal. As soon as he saw his strike partner get the ball he ran from left to right across Croatia’s defensive line, creating the space for Neymar to run from right to left and shoot.
Fred is like Neymar’s uncle on the pitch, always looking out for him. He wrestles the central defenders, wins the knockdowns, makes the unselfish runs.
Neymar goes where he wants on the pitch, sometimes dropping back to half-way, sometimes appearing on the touchline, sometimes bursting beyond the striker.
Scolari has said to him: you’re my star, do what you think you need to do to win us the game. Neymar could not do this without the self-sacrifice of players like Fred to give the game a pattern he can read and break.
Barcelona fans might wonder why they don’t see this player at Camp Nou, but at Barcelona, Neymar can’t possibly have that freedom. It’s Lionel Messi’s team and Neymar is just a support player. Neymar should never have gone there. Players as good as he and Messi both deserve to be the most important player in the team.
By half-time Neymar had showed a lot of nice touches, but Brazil’s attack was not convincing as a unit. Oscar was justifying his selection with some good touches but Hulk and Paulinho were bystanders, and there was little quality support from the full-backs Alves and Marcelo.
That was when the host nation factor intervened in the shape of Mr Nishimura.
Nobody would be so crass as to cast aspersions on Nishimura’s neutrality but we can assume he has been following the news and understands how awkward it would be for Fifa if Brazil were to suffer an early exit from a World Cup to which there has been so much organised opposition.
So when Brazil’s centre-forward flops to the ground under an apparent challenge from an opposition defender, and 60,000 Brazilians scream for him to give the penalty, who is Mr Nishimura to stand in the way of destiny?
It wasn’t a penalty, of course. The most generous interpretation was that Fred had lost his balance while trying to change direction, though a more likely explanation is that he knew any reasonably convincing penalty-area tumble stood a chance of hitting the jackpot. The Croatians protested in vain.
Neymar embarked on a baroque run-up that demanded to be documented in its entirety. He started with some big side-steps to the left along the 18 yard line. Then he lazily meandered back towards the ball and into the penalty area, describing a question mark-shaped arc.
Suddenly, he dramatically upped the tempo with a series of tiny quick-steps, then checked, took another big step towards the ball and shot hard to Pletikosa’s right.
Pletikosa read his intentions all the way and this time he got a hand to the shot, but the power took it high into the net.
By the time Oscar made it 3-1 with a late counter-attack, Neymar had been substituted. He shook the hand of the referee as he went off, the two key men acknowledging each other’s contribution to the evening.
On Wednesday night Scolari had spoken of the World Cup as a matter of seven steps. Last night, Brazil’s superstar took care of step number one.