Debut win reveals Brazil's flaws
In the old days of World Cups, there was always financial pressure in favour of the home team. The bulk of the tournament's revenue came from ticket sales, more of which would be shifted if the hosts went all the way.
This time, subconsciously, there might be political pressure favouring the hosts. The nightmare scenario for the authorities is an early exit for Luiz Felipe Scolari's men. Usually, if Brazil are knocked out early, millions switch off from the competition. This time, the fear is that disappointment with the team's display will pour extra fuel on the flames of anger with the tournament organisation.
Unfortunately, referee Yuichi Nishimura has left room for such doubts about subconsciously favouring the hosts after a series of decisions that had a significant effect on the outcome of the match. Should Neymar have been sent off after planting an elbow in the face of Luka Modric? It is debatable. Should Croatia have had a goal ruled out when Ivica Olic was adjudged to have fouled keeper Julio Cesar? It is highly debatable. Should Brazil have been given the penalty that effectively decided the game? Here, there is no room for debate: It was a dreadful decision.
But it would be an error of similar proportions to write off Brazil's chances of winning the tournament merely because they were below par against Croatia. The debut game creates extraordinary pressures. The team used up so much emotional energy that there was little gas left in the tank for the game. The tempo of the passing and movement was often insufficient. And in the second half, the team seemed unable to press Croatia, who enjoyed prolonged spells of possession.
Moreover, the game highlighted the weak point of so many Brazil teams -- the space left behind the attacking full-backs -- especially when the side are unable to stay compact. Brazil's opponents are sure to test this time and time again during the tournament.
But there were also things for Scolari to celebrate, quite apart from the three points. Indeed, in the long term, more important than the three points is the flexibility shown by the line of three in Brazil's 4-2-3-1 formation.
Under pressure for his place, Oscar gave a man-of-the-match performance, showing the full range of his versatility. He was impressive in an unaccustomed wide-right role and made contributions all over the pitch -- such as scoring the third goal, an inspired no-backlift toe poke reminiscent of Ronaldo against Turkey in the semifinal of the 2002 World Cup. He retained possession and slipped the ball through for Neymar to bring Brazil level.
The boy prince of the Brazilian game spent most of the match in a central role, operating deeper than his usual duties wide on the left. This made sure he was involved in the play and was also designed to exploit Croatia's lack of a fixed holding midfielder. This, of course, was the story of that first goal -- Neymar finding space down the middle of the pitch to run and slip a superbly placed left-footed shot in off the post.
The other member of the trio, Hulk, did not shine anything like as brightly, but he carried out an important function -- his presence, unusually this time wide on the left, stretched the Croatia defence and helped make space for Neymar. And his defensive contribution was highlighted by a free kick that Brazil won on the edge of the Croatia box. The move began when Hulk won the ball deep in the left-back position.
The world, then, has had a look at the virtues and defects of Luiz Felipe Scolari's Brazil. Next up is Mexico on Tuesday in Fortaleza -- hopefully without the debut-match nerves and with a better refereeing performance.