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World Cup: Neymar double gives Brazil a nervy opening win over Croatia

Nervy, unconvincing and fortuitous — but Brazil could scarcely care less.

On a night where its players finally stepped into the high-pressure cauldron atmosphere of the World Cup on home soil, Brazil found a way to win.

Gone are the days of “Fútbol Arte” or “Joga Bonito” — the beautiful game — this current generation cannot compete with that of 1970 or 1982.

But it does possess its own heroes — and when Brazil needed him most, Neymar, for so long the face of this World Cup, stepped up and delivered.

His two goals, the second a highly controversial penalty awarded in a farcical manner by referee Yuichi Nishimura, ensured Brazil triumphed 3-1 over Croatia in Thursday’s opening match.

Oscar’s stoppage-time strike ensured a party atmosphere in Sao Paulo — though it did not prevent protesters from assembling outside the stadium immediately after the contest.

In a week where politics has overshadowed sport, this was the result the entire country had hoped for and rounded off a day which had begun in worrying fashion.

Earlier Thursday, violence erupted in Sao Paulo as police clashed with protesters around 11 kilometers from the stadium.

Critics are furious with the Brazilian government for spending $11 billion on the World Cup instead of low-income housing, hospitals and schools.

Inside the arena, the country’s president Dilma Rousseff was booed by the crowd despite her attempt to keep a low profile.

But any frustration at the political problems which have overshadowed the lead-up to the tournament were temporarily placed on hold.

As the Brazilian team lined up for the national anthem, those draped in yellow rose to salute not just their heroes — but their entire homeland.

This was not a simple song — this was a war cry, a call to arms to relieve the pain and struggle of daily life, and the disaster of 1950.

Not since that year has Brazil hosted the tournament.

For 64 years the nation has waited to exorcize the demons of its darkest day in football.

Brazil, needing just a draw to win the tournament, led 1-0 at halftime against Uruguay and appeared destined for greatness.

Medals were engraved, newspapers were published at halftime declaring Brazil champion of the world.

It was set to be the biggest celebration the country had ever witnessed — but nobody remembered to tell Uruguay.

Juan Alberto Schiaffino equalized to stun the home crowd as the visiting team began to sense fear inside the Maracana Stadium.

And then, it happened — the moment that brought about what would be known as Brazil’s “Hiroshima” moment.

Brazil goalkeeper Moacyr Barbosa allowed an effort from Alcides Ghiggia to roll underneath his body and into the net — Uruguay was crowned champion.

For Barbosa, life would never be the same.

Even though he was named goalkeeper of the tournament he was scapegoated and never allowed to forget his error until he passed away in 2000.

“Under Brazilian law the maximum sentence is 30 years,” Barbosa remarked on his 79th birthday, just two weeks before he passed away. “But my imprisonment has been for 50 years.”

Brazil’s players are no strangers to the history of their nation — the yearning to erase the pain of 1950 has been with each and every generation who have pulled on the famous yellow jersey.

So when Marcelo inadvertently diverted the ball into his own net after 11 minutes, you could have forgiven those draped in yellow for looking to the heavens.

Croatia, which finished third at the 1998 World Cup, deserved the lead — though it came in fortuitous circumstances after Nikica Jelavic’s miscued effort was turned in by the Real Madrid defender.

Buoyed by the goal, Croatia appeared full of confidence and could have had a second when Jelavic peeled away at the far post only to send his header straight at Julio Cesar.

Shocked and stunned by conceding, Brazil slowly but surely wrestled its way back into the contest.

And in Neymar, the team has a player ready to carry the nation on his shoulders.

So much pressure has been placed on the 22-year-old, who endured a difficult first season at Spanish club Barcelona, but this is the moment he has been waiting for.

And when his country needed him, he responded. With 29 minutes played, Neymar took advantage of the space in front of him before unleashing a low 25-yard drive which flew into the corner.

As the ball hit the back of the net it was as if a pressure valve had been released — joy unconfined, thousands hugging, dancing, kissing and glancing skywards to offer prayers of gratitude.

This was Brazil, resplendent in its yellow and blue, pushing forward. And when it needed it most, it had the luck too.

With 20 minutes of normal time remaining, referee Nishimura adjudged that Dejan Lovren had fouled Fred and pointed to the penalty spot.

It was a bewildering decision, with television pictures clearly showing that the Brazil striker had fallen over and not been dragged down by Lovren.

While the Croatian players raged at the Japanese official, Neymar steadied himself and took the spot kick, only just beating Stipe Pletikosa from 12 yards.

“If that’s how we start the World Cup, we’d better give it up now and go home,” Croatia coach Niko Kovac told reporters after the game.

“We talk about respect, that wasn’t respect, Croatia didn’t get any.

“If that’s a penalty, we don’t need to play football anymore. Let’s play basketball instead, it’s a shame.”

With Croatia riled by the injustice, it attempted to respond almost immediately and Ivan Perisic thought he had equalized only to be denied by the referee’s whistle.

Luka Modric’s long-range drive then forced Brazil goalkeeper Julio Cesar into a scramble as Croatia pushed on in search of the goal to draw it level.

But just as Brazil appeared to be hanging on, a moment of magic from its most impressive player on the night, Oscar, ensured victory.

A sweeping counter-attack allowed the midfielder to run clear before toe-poking the ball past Pletikosa to secure victory.

Brazil will face Mexico in its next game on June 17 in Fortaleza.

Mexico begins its Group A campaign against Cameroon on Friday, when there is a repeat of the 2010 World Cup final in Group B with champion Spain taking on Netherlands.

Friday’s final game sees Chile take on Australia.