Referee woes, J.Lo and stone throws
The world waited, the world expected and finally, on Thursday evening, the world was given exactly what it wanted: A completely baffling opening ceremony, the flamboyant rite of passage for all great international sporting events.
Oh, what scenes we witnessed. Brightly coloured dancers, a giant LED football, a group of stilt-walking Ents who may or may not have been related to Per Mertesacker and, in spite of reports to the contrary, one Jennifer Lopez. It was colourful, beguiling and enchanting, a celebration of the diversity and character of the Brazilian nation. And it was made all the more entertaining by the presumably now-unemployed sound engineer who got the levels wrong and inadvertently silenced Lopez in her prime.
Lopez, who I'm told is from the block, regardless of the size of her rock, did her best to make herself heard, but to no avail. Through no fault of her own, she was the first high-profile disappointment of this World Cup. She may not be the last.
- If Lopez had much to reflect upon, spare a thought for referee Yuichi Nishimura. The Japanese official trotted out with the clear intention of discreetly sitting back and allowing the opening game to flow. He trudged back down the tunnel less than two hours later with the haunted look of a man who knows that an entire nation of furious football fans would like to have a word.
- Nishimura's errors overshadowed what was a thoroughly entertaining opening tussle between a Brazil side apparently racked with nerves and a Croatian team who had read the script, but really didn't care for it too much and decided to ad lib instead.
Brazil will have to improve drastically if they're to live up to the pre-tournament hype. But don't be too quick to write them off because of an unconvincing opening night. In 2002, they needed a late penalty to beat Turkey in their first game. In 2010, Spain opened their tournament by losing to Switzerland and yet it all worked out rather well for them in the end. There's a long way to go yet.
- There's so long to go, in fact, that you could forgive a number of TV producers for wondering if they're going to make it to the end unscathed. The studios used by a number of international broadcasters on Copacabana Beach came under attack on Thursday night from stone-throwing protesters. British TV host Adrian Chiles told viewers that the bombardment began 10 minutes before full-time and pointed to a number of cracks in the glass front of the studio.
"We did try to explain to them that none of this is our fault," said Chiles hopefully.
- If we're sparing thoughts for referees, and we like to be a considerate blog, let's send our best wishes to Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli. He'll be taking charge of Spain against the Netherlands on Friday, a replay of the fiery 2010 World Cup Final. Back then, English whistler Howard Webb was widely criticised for his handling of the game, criticism that was absolutely justified. Had Webb done his job properly, he would have sent every Dutch player off for violent conduct and dismissed every Spanish player for ungentlemanly conduct manifested in the sort of injury-feigning nonsense that makes everybody look bad. The whole thing would have been over before half-time. Rizzoli will be desperate to avoid a repeat performance. Nishimura, on the other hand, will be hoping that his colleague does something spectacular to get him out of the spotlight.
- Friday also offers an intriguing tussle between two of the teams with the least impressive qualification campaigns behind them. Mexico are World Cup stalwarts and have made the last 16 in every tournament since 1994, but that run nearly came to an end months before this World Cup began. Having used a whopping four managers in an atrocious qualifying campaign, El Tri only just edged out Panama for a playoff place and the right to spank New Zealand over two legs.
They play Cameroon, who warmed up for the tournament by having a massive tear-up about bonuses that culminated in their refusal to board the plane. They're here now, but Croatia, still smarting from their defeat, will hope that neither they nor the Mexican players have yet regained their composure.
- Finally, keep an eye out for the final game of the night, Chile against Australia. Jorge Sampaoli's team are second only to Belgium in the 'dark horses' stakes. Australia, on the other hand, are so unfancied that they're essentially anaemic Shetland ponies with a touch of bronchitis. But as every Englishman knows, you write off an Australian sportsman at your peril. If they win this, however, it will be the shock of the tournament.