SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Thiago Silva fought back tears as he led his Brazilian teammates out of the tunnel and onto the field Thursday to welcome a World Cup many here thought would never come.
Star striker Neymar, who at just 22 is carrying the burden of his country’s enormous expectations, nearly broke down during the national anthem, his emotions a mix of joy and terror.
But two hours later the only tears Brazilians were crying were ones of joy. After seven years of waiting and a record $11.5 billion worth of preparing, the country finally got the party started — and it did so on its own terms, outplaying and eventually outscoring Croatia 3-1 on two goals from Neymar.
The fans did not quiet — nor did many sit down — until Croatia took a 1-0 lead in the 11th minute on an own goal.
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Croatia’s Ivica Olic sent a cross for forward Nikica Jelavic, who deflected it just enough to send the ball into the path of a surprised Brazilian defender Marcelo, who knocked it into the net.
Croatian striker Jelavic, something of a surprise starter, nearly doubled the lead in the 28th minute, but goalkeeper Julio Cesar made a leaping two-handed save on his header at the back post. Perhaps Brazil took that as a warning because it immediately counterattacked to tie the score.
The sequence began with Chelsea midfielder Oscar winning control just inside the Croatian end and sending the ball forward for Neymar. After a lengthy run up the middle won him space, Neymar pulled up about 25 yards from the net and sent a low left-footed shot toward the near side where it kissed the right post and slithered in.
The party had officially started as celebratory fireworks erupted outside the stadium.
Neymar got the best of Croatia keeper Stipe Pletikosa once again in the 71st minute, scoring with the other foot on a penalty kick to become the first player with two goals in his World Cup debut since Spain’s David Villa in 2006.
He had some help, though, because Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura awarded the controversial penalty when Croatia’s Dejan Lovren pulled Brazilian forward Fred down in the box.
“We better give it up now and go home. We talk about respect, Croatia didn’t get any. If we continue in this way we will have a circus,” Croatian coach Niko Kovac said.
“No one in the stadium or 2 billion people watching at home could think that was a penalty,” he added.
“Millions didn’t see a penalty?” shot back Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. “Well the referee did. I watched it 10 times. For me it was a penalty.”
If so, it was a soft one because Fred went down easily. Neymar made it count, though, sending a right-footed rocket toward the left post. Pletikosa guessed correctly and leaped that way but the shot was too strong, bouncing off his hands and into the upper corner of the netting.
Croatia had one last chance to spoil Brazil’s special night, but Ivan Perisic’s apparent game-tying goal in the final minutes was waved off by Nishimura, who ruled that a leaping Olic, going for a header, had fouled Cesar when the keeper went to the turf.