It’s tempting to simply place Neymar in a silhouette, detached from the chaos of the World Cup, and focus on why he’s the greatest natural resource to futbol in the host country. Only 22 and thinner than water, he scored twice in the most daunting of settings, Brazil’s debut game in an unfinished stadium where a main road was blocked by a clash between riot police and protesters. Get used to daily installments of these violent disputes, based on widespread suspicions that the government was corrupt in spending $11 billion on this global spectacle and not using those riches for education, poverty and infrastructure needs.
Neymar, known as the golden child, is capable of soothing the angriest of native rages. But even if we could block out all that ails Brazil as the world watches, the first game was marred by the one seed FIFA didn’t want to plant: The refs aren’t to be trusted. Neymar’s second goal in a tense 3-1 victory over Croatia came after a 71st-minute dive, an acting job so laughable that Dwyane Wade and Lance Stephenson would deserve Oscars by comparison. The Brazilian striker, Fred, dropped to the turf as if he’d been shot when defender Dejan Lovren, at worst, grasped him briefly on the shoulder. Either intimidated by the home-country surroundings or paid off by outside influences — see the New York Times two-part series on corruption in the sport, including referees on the take — the Japanese referee, Yuichi Nishimura, awarded Neymar with a penalty kick.
Before that dubious call and Neymar’s conversion for the second goal, Croatia was in position to (1) shock the hosts, (2) become the first team to beat the World Cup host in its first game and (3) launch this legitimate social concern: How angry will the Brazilians be if their team is eliminated early? The pitch in Sao Paulo, Itaquerao Stadium, grew quiet after an own-goal — defender Marcelo misdirected the ball on a cross and kicked it past his goalie, Julio Caesar, for a 1-0 deficit. My warped mind immediately thought back to the 1994 World Cup. That’s when Andres Escobar returned to Colombia after scoring an own-goal against the U.S. — and was murdered. “I stayed calm because if I let myself get down I would have hurt the team,” Marcelo said. “It’s not the first time that this has happened, so you have to stay relaxed to help the team.”
Fortunately, Marcelo should live to see another day thanks to Nishimura, who should not work another game in this tournament if FIFA wants to demonstrate that it has an ounce of integrity.
“If that was a penalty, we should be playing basketball. Those kinds of fouls are penalized there,” Croatia coach Niko Kovac said in a lengthy rant. “That is shameful, this is not a World Cup referee. He had one kind of criteria for them and another for us. The rules were not the same.
“I don’t think anybody, anywhere in the stadium, saw this as a penalty. If you continue like this you will have 100 penalties. I think 2.5 billion people watching on TV saw this was not a penalty.
This was ridiculous and if we continue in this way we will have a circus. Fred is an 85-kilogram [185-pound) man and I don’t believe he can be brought to the ground in such a manner.”
The call served only to hurt the sport because it deflected attention from the prodigy who deserves our admiration. Brazil may not win the trophy, but Neymar is poised to take his place among soccer’s greats in the coming weeks.
“It’s important to start these tournaments with the right foot, with a victory,” Neymar said. “I’m happy that I got to score, but the entire team deserves credit. We maintained our calm and showed we could battle back.”
He didn’t mention the man most responsible. Kovac did, deep into the night. “We better give it up now and go home,” he said. “We talk about respect, Croatia didn’t get any.”
Nor did those of us watching the World Cup. And to think we’re just getting started.