Cesar literally saves the day for Brazil
SAO PAULO -- All anyone wanted to talk about afterward was the penalty call.
But had Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar not made a clutch stop on Croatian defender Ivan Perisic with the hosts clinging to a 2-1 lead in the 90th minute of the spectacular opening match of the 2014 World Cup, the discussion afterward could have been decidedly different.
Instead, the veteran backstop made the save, the Selacao picked up the ball and headed the other way, and when Oscar's audacious toe-poke from outside the area beat Croatian keeper Stipe Pletikosa to make it 3-1, this nation of almost 200 million people breathed a collective sigh of relief before celebrations that would surely last long into the night.
Even if Brazil's victory was tainted by Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura's controversial decision to reward Brazilian striker Fred for what looked like blatant embellishment, the Croats left Arena De Sao Paulo with global respect, if not the three points. Niko Kovac's team were all over the hosts before Oscar sealed the win. And the way they played throughout, nobody would have been surprised if the equalizer had come.
If not for the late heroics from a man many here had their doubts about before the tournament -- not least because of his eyebrow-raising move to MLS's Toronto FC earlier this year -- it may not have.
"Last World Cup, he didn't play so well," Brazilian journalist Sergio Luz, who writes for the magazine Revista Veja, said of Julio Cesar post-match.
"The last few years he's been with second[-tier] teams in Europe. He had to go to Toronto just to get practice because he wasn't playing much. But our team is very young, and Julio Cesar is one of the older players, so his experience could be very important. He played well, and that was a good save."
Despite the doubts beforehand, the 34-year-old received a hearty ovation when he was introduced before the game. It said plenty about a player who made his name domestically as a standout for Rio De Janeiro giant Flamengo, at least on the surface.
"There are 30 million Flamengo fans in Brazil," O Globo newspaper reporter Tatiana Cavalanti explained. "Flamengo has fans everywhere. Mostly in Rio, but in Sao Paulo, too."
Julio Cesar also has remained popular with Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, even after the former Champions League winner (with Inter Milan in 2010) was relegated to backup duty with English Championship club Queens Park Rangers last season, and not just because of his experience.
"The other goalkeepers," Globo's Aydano Andre Motta said of backups Jefferson and Victor, both of whom play their club ball in Brazil, "are not so good."
But there may have been another reason Scolari stuck with the old hand.
"The coach wants to repeat 2002," Motta said. "When we won that World Cup, the goalkeeper was Marcos, and he was older. Scolari is hoping history repeats itself."
So, obviously, is the Brazilian public. Thursday's win was just the first step, but Julio Cesar's timely save went a long way toward answering whatever questions the home fans had about his ability to still perform at the top level. It also validated Scolari's decision to stick with the vet.
"Brazilians only look at the last game," Luz said. "He made that save, and we won, and tomorrow every Brazilian will say that Scolari was right."