SÃO PAULO - From the minute the United States Men’s National Team got their day underway, it became clear things were different in Sao Paulo. The team awoke and travelled to training with ease unheard of during their first week in Brazil’s largest city. The bustling metropolis' famous traffic was nowhere to be seen on the morning of the World Cup's opening day.
Located just a miles from the U.S. National Team’s hotel, the Avenida Paulista is a bustling main street that funnels a constant swarm of automobiles. But by Thursday afternoon, there wasn't a soul on the road. This was the calm before the storm, and what a storm it ended up being.
Croatia's Ivica Olic became the most dangerous player on the field in the game's first 10 minutes, and his cross would flummox the Brazilian defense. Somehow Marcelo found himself on the other end, tapping the ball over the line and sending the small groups of checkered shirts into delirium while the rest of the stadium gasped in disbelief.
Brazil responded with the same fury their fans showed after the subsequent kickoff. The pace of the game somehow quickened and Neymar became the focal point of his side’s scoring chances and the increased physical intensity of the encounter. In the 27th minute he was issued a yellow card for a hard elbow to the face of midfielder Luka Modric. Then two minutes later he conjured a bit of magic to even the score.
The reminder of the first half played out without major incident, as if the game needed to take a breather from the breakneck pace it had established in the opening half hour. The second half started at a similar pace. That is, until "the call."
The challenge on Brazilian striker Fred by Dejan Lovren didn't look like much, but the resulting penalty kick, finished by Neymar after a start-then-stop-then-start again approach, sent the arena into a frenzy. Fireworks exploded from the rooftops in the distance. However controversially, Brazil had made its comeback.
After David Luiz blocked out one final shot on goalkeeper Julio Cesar, Oscar set off like a flash, ghosting past Croatian defenders before beating Pletikosa with a strong, toe-poked shot into the bottom corner. Then came the fireworks, again. Moments later the whistle blew. With it, the FIFA World Cup called time on an opening game that offered plenty to discuss.
Back near the team hotel, the Brazilian fans that deserted the streets in advance of the game now flooded back out into the city, honking and chanting and making commutes interminable once again. São Paulo returned to its bustling, busy self, but with a lot more yellow shirts, and even more smiles than usual.