During warmups, a host nation gasped at the sight of -- or getting word about -- Neymar wincing and limping. At a Monday practice, the young man who carries the two-ton mantle of Brazil’s soccer savior rolled his ankle.
If these Brazilians lean more on Neymar than their previous World Cup teams have on a single player, as Pele has claimed, they would be in a heap of trouble with a gimpy forward.
But midway through the first half against Croatia, Neymar ricocheted a left-footer off the right post and into the net. It canceled out an own-goal for Croatia that leveled the score 1-1 at the break.
Brazil was desultory at the start. The Croats nearly scored on an early header. Then, a cross from the left side weaved through a clutch of players on both sides and toward the foot of Brazilian defender Marcelo. He misdirected it across the line to record an unprecedented feat: the first own-goal ever for Brazil in Cup play.
Minutes later, some banks of lights at Itaquerao Stadium, whose construction completed just under the wire, blinked off. At the same time, the home team seemed to awaken, peppering the goal with one shot after another.
None found the mark until Neymar’s strike. A tie at halftime would normally be cause for despair in Brazil. Given the team’s lackadaisical beginning and the gift goal for Croatia, it brought welcome relief.