10:20 PM EDT, June 12, 2014
Reporting from Sao 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 a pair of goals from Neymar.
On what was declared a holiday in Brazil, fans began arriving at Arena Corinthians by the thousands more than six hours before kickoff –- though the majority of them came without tickets, just wanting to be near the first World Cup game in Brazil in 64 years.
And just as they did in last summer's Confederations Cup, Brazil's players joined the fans inside the stadium — and out — in finishing the national anthem a cappella after the stadium public-address system went silent.
FIFA, world soccer's governing body, allows just 90 seconds for national anthems and Brazil's is more than twice that long. But this day belonged to Brazil so the players and fans stood and sang.
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.
Croatia's Ivica Olic sent a cross in from the left wing 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.
Shortly afterward the late afternoon skies above the stadium grew dark and cloudy –- even Mother Nature, it seemed, couldn't bear to watch. But Marcelo's mistake would prove to be the only one of the day for Brazil.
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 an sent a low left-footed shot toward the near side where it kissed the right post as slithered in.
The party had officially started as celebratory fireworks erupted outside the stadium.
And while the teams were equal on the scoreboard at the half, they weren't equal on the field with Brazil outshooting Croatia 10-3 in the first 45 minutes and building an even more commanding margin in shots on goal with seven to one for the visitors.
Only the stout play of keeper Stipe Pletikosa kept Croatia in the game.
But Neymar got the best of Pletikosa once again in the 71th 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 player 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, stutter-stepping, then pausing as he approached the ball before 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.
Neymar, his face now a mix of happiness and relief, raced toward the endline, dropped to his knees and raised his hands while looking toward the skies, which had cleared. Pletikosa, frustrated, put both hands on the sides of his head and stomped away in the opposite direction.
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.
Moments later, with Brazil's fans now were in full throat chanting, "The champion is back," Oscar helped secure the win with a goal at the end of a breakaway, chipping in a right-footed shot just inside the near post in stoppage time.
That bought fireworks again. The World Cup was finally here. And for a day at least, it had proved worth waiting for.
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