There should normally be significant risk in making predictions about the 64th game of a 64-game World Cup after the completion of no more than the first 90 minutes of the tournament. But my prognosis is infallible: I predict that Yuichi Nishimura, the Japanese referee who was on duty today when Brazil took on Croatia, will not officiate in the final. In fact, I would be surprised if he gets another game at all.
With the tussle poised deliciously at 1-1 in the 69th minute, and the Croatians giving their mighty hosts a run for their (funny) money, Nishimura awarded a penalty against the Balkan side that was so unfair, such a travesty, that it wrung the magic from a match that had—until that malign intervention—offered the prospect of a startling upset.
Fred is a Brazilian forward who had had an impotent game until that moment, showing an inability to either possess the ball or pass it on to others. No matter. His histrionic skills were a sight to behold as he fell to ground within spitting distance of the Croatian goal after Dejan Lovren, a doughty defender, did no more than place a hand on his shoulder. Down Fred went and the ref blew his whistle, piercing Croatian hearts as he pointed to the penalty spot. Fred, in truth unscathed, quickly got to his feet and raised arms skyward—his cynical thanks to the gods. It was hard not to detest him.
Neymar duly scored from the spot, his second goal of the match, and Brazil were ahead 2-1. They made it 3-1 20 minutes later after Oscar scored at the end of a beautiful, sinuous run, a goal that was as fragrant as Fred’s dive had been putrid.
The final score flattered Brazil, which had looked ragged and complacent for much of the game. So casual were they at the start, in fact, that one wondered whether FIFA’s “Say No to Racism” banners at the ground should be amended to “Say No to Complacency.”
The game kicked off after the local constabulary had cleared 300 protesters gathered outside the Corinthians Arena in São Paulo in an impressive, 10-minute show of force. Would the Brazilian players be as efficient inside the stadium as the cops had been outside? The answer, we quickly discovered, was an emphatic no. Marcelo, normally pitch-perfect in his play, scored the first own goal in Brazil’s World Cup history in the 12th minute, after one of several early defensive lapses by the host team. The Brazilian defense, touted as impenetrable in pre-tournament hype, proved to be bedraggled, and porous.
Neymar restored order in the 28th minute with a goal of geometrical precision, hit low into the right corner of the Croatian goal. With Fred ineffective, and Hulk, the other Brazilian forward, playing a Lilliputian game, it was clear that Brazil would need Neymar to rescue them from serious embarrassment. He did that today, with a little help from Nishimura-san. But on the basis of today’s display, it is hard to see Brazil winning the World Cup. Stronger sides will pick them apart, and I, for one, look forward to that.