Brazil 3 Croatia 1: It's a scandal, cry Croatians after referee gifts hosts penalty
Coach Niko Kovac also furious at Japanese ref, saying he is out of his depth, as poster boy Neymar bags two goals
Agencies in Sao Paulo
Furious Croatia defender Dejan Lovren branded the penalty awarded against him during Brazil’s 3-1 win in the World Cup opener on Thursday a “scandal”, questioning the referee’s right to be officiating at the showpiece event.
Unfancied Croatia took a shock lead when Marcelo put the ball into his own net early in the group A match before Neymar levelled in front of a jubilant crowd in the Corinthians Arena.
But the European side were holding their own in the second half until Japanese ref Yuichi Nishimura pointed to the spot after Fred backed into Lovren and fell.
“I’m sad, that’s it, because we played a good match and the referee – it wasn’t a mistake, it was a scandal. It’s a scandal for everyone, it’s a scandal for Fifa. I think this referee shouldn’t be at this World Cup,” said the Southampton player.
“I don’t know for what he deserved to be here. It’s really disappointing for us because I think we were playing a good game against a big team, Brazil.
“Two billion people I think saw that it was not a penalty. I didn’t touch him. We’re really disappointed but what can you do against 12 players? You can’t do anything,” he said.
Croatian coach Niko Kovac warned the World Cup could become a “circus” after the soft 71st-minute penalty.
“This was ridiculous, and if we continue in this way we will have a circus,” he said at a post-match press conference dominated by questions about the penalty.
“If that’s a penalty, we don’t need to play football any more. Let’s play basketball instead. The lads played their hearts out but that was outright thuggery by a referee who was just out of his depth for a game of this magnitude.”
Brazil’s poster boy Neymar scored twice and the outstanding Oscar added a late third as the Cup favourites came from behind to win.
Kovac, who said his team deserved at least a draw, also felt Oscar’s goal should not have been allowed due to a foul earlier in the move.
“Was there a foul on my player? Yes. It was a foul. But that’s life. We will march on. We will not be swayed.”
Kovac, stony-faced yet calm, praised his team, who took the lead in the 11th minute after an own goal by Marcelo, and had several scoring chances during the rest of the match.
“My lads have fought for two years to reach the World Cup. They worked hard, prepared, and then they were faced with such a penalty decision here. You can imagine walking into our dressing room – what kind of mood my lads are in.”
WATCH: Marcelo puts Croatia ahead
Nishimura ruled that Lovren had fouled Fred, who appeared to throw himself to the ground, but Kovac did not blame the Brazilian.
“The referee was well-placed, he was not unsighted, he saw everything and he took that decision. I don’t blame Fred at all.”
Neymar hauled Brazil back into the match after 29 minutes with the equaliser after defender Marcelo put through his own net after 11 minutes to give Croatia a shock lead.
“The only thing we want is that Neymar is happy playing ball,” Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said.
“He’s a special player. He can rest assured that we’re going to help him. He doesn’t need all of you [the media] to demand that he become the best player in the world. His responsibility is to play for Brazil and that’s what he did today.”
Neymar, under enormous pressure to produce the kind of football that could lead Brazil to their sixth World Cup, did not disappoint with some stunning passes and moves as he held off rigorous challenges by the stylish Croatians.
“I’m very happy, really happy indeed, more than I ever dreamed or imagined,” Neymar said. “We started off on the right foot, with a victory.
“The merit belongs to the team as a whole, which remained cool and calm to come from behind and win.”
Watch: Neymar equalises for Brazil
Despite the setback, Kovac said he remained confident his team could progress out of the group. In their other two group A games, Croatia play Cameroon in the hot and humid Amazon city of Manaus on June 18 and Mexico in Recife five days later.
“I am optimistic,” he told Croatian television. “We just have to make our way into the knockout stages because we are definitely good enough."
Brazilians clearly wanted one of their team to score the first goal of the finals, but not in the way it came about and Marcelo’s misfortune meant he became the first Brazilian ever to score an own goal at the World Cup.
The cross that bamboozled him came from Ivica Olic whose low ball from the left went through the legs of Brazil skipper Thiago Silva, clipped Nikica Jelavic’s foot and bounced in off Marcelo with keeper Julio Cesar helpless.
Neymar created Brazil’s first opening when he jinked along the byline, resulting in a half-cleared ball to Oscar who slammed in a curling 25-metre drive that Pletikosa acrobatically pushed away.
But Croatia’s reprieve only lasted seven minutes and the equaliser was greeted by scenes of unbridled joy by Brazilian fans and players with fireworks visible on the city skyline through the huge openings on the corners of the stadium.
Oscar, at the core of most of Brazil’s attacks, started the move by beating two men in midfield before finding Neymar who advanced a few metres before cracking in a low left-foot shot that went in off the base of Pletikosa’s left-hand post for his 32nd goal in his 50th international.
Neymar scored his 33rd with the penalty and although Croatia never stopped battling, Oscar wrapped up the win in the first minute of stoppage time with a low drive which he toe-poked home to seal Brazil’s 10th successive victory.
“We still have to improve quite a bit, we’re going to have to evolve and we’re going to have to assimilate some setbacks,” Scolari said.
“Our players were excellent, they showed determination to be able to come from behind. They were fantastic.
“But who really deserves praise are the fans. It was wonderful, the support we received here in Sao Paulo. If there’s still any notion out that Sao Paulo doesn’t root for the national team effusively enough, that was put to rest today.”
Agence France-Presse, Reuters