They needed a generous call—to put it mildly—to get it done, but in the end Brazil got the result a nation was desperately wanting, even demanding.
Kicking off a tournament on home soil, a financial commitment a significant minority of the population remains decidedly unhappy about, was always going to be an intriguing test for Luiz Felipe Scolari's side. Would they rise to the occasion, or find themselves stifled by the vast weight of expectation?
Initially it appeared to be the former, despite a rousing (partly a cappella) rendition of the national anthem before kick-off. Marcelo's 11th-minute own goal was a fair reflection of a jittery start for the hosts, one they took nearly 20 minutes to cancel out as Neymar's scuffed shot slipped inside Stipe Pletikosa's far post.
Then came the game's decisive, and most controversial, moment. Brazil's lead striker Fred—about as influential as the 60,000 fans in the stands up until that point—felt an arm on his shoulder and went down in the box, convincing referee Yuichi Nishimura that a penalty was warranted.
Croatia complained bitterly, but the decision had been made. Neymar just about grabbed his second goal from the spot to decisively turn the game, as a thrilling opening game was tarnished in the eyes of many.
Oscar, who was undoubtedly the game's most influential player, then sealed the victory with a prodded finish late on. Two draws are now likely to send the hosts through, although without the same pressure to perform, they may play with more freedom and inflict some real damage on their other group opponents.
They will certainly not want to dwell on the nuts and bolts of this game, as they struggled to close the game out even after the soft penalty award. Indeed, Croatia looked like they might well steal an equaliser as they desperately pushed men forward—with Oscar's snatched effort on the counter-attack arguably more significant than the final 3-1 scoreline might indicate.
Neutral fans will certainly want to see more from Scolari's side in games to come—and might keep an eye on the officiating.
For now, however, the tournament we've all been waiting for is now underway, and Brazil are off the mark.
1. Notes from Day 1
Are Brazil actually that good? Ninety minutes under perhaps the most intense pressure any of them will experience (well, unless they reach the final, of course) might not be the best circumstances in which to judge this Brazil side, but it certainly seems to lack the cutting edge of victorious Selecao teams past.
It is solid at the back, sure, but further forward it is hard to argue that the attacking trio of Neymar, Fred and Hulk is anywhere near as good as the World Cup-winning attack of 2002: Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. If such high-caliber players are needed to win these tournaments, then they could be in trouble.
Functional in midfield, Scolari's side were pushed hard by a Croatia side that needed a play-off to even qualify for this tournament. The coach will no doubt say that the result is all that matters from the first game, but the performances will have to improve before the team faces another side with serious title aspirations.
Undoubtedly the most disgusting moment of the day came in the opening ceremony, when Pitbull appeared on stage alongside Jennifer Lopez and Claudia Leitte. What exactly is going on with that shirt?!
2. Quote of the Day
If that's a penalty, we don't need to play football anymore. Let's play basketball instead. It's a shame.
- Croatia manager Niko Kovac (per the BBC's Ben Smith)
You have to sympathise with Kovac, as he saw a memorable result snatched away from his determined and effective side. He must now rouse his players in time to get positive results against Cameroon and Mexico, if they are to have any chance of progression.
3. Tweet of the Day
Brazil's centre-midfield consists of a Spurs and a Wolfsburg player. Croatia's consists of a Real Madrid and Barcelona player. #WorldCup2014— John Downes (@JohnCDownes) June 12, 2014
São Paulo has more people of Japanese extraction than any other city in world outside Japan, as I'm sure most Croatians will come to know.— Jeremy Schaap (@JeremySchaap) June 12, 2014
4. Goal of the Day
Neymar's second. It was not a game of great goals (although Marcelo's own goal was certainly humorous), but the penalty was always going to be the decisive moment. It was far from a great penalty, but it just beat Stipe Pletikosa—sparking more fireworks in Sao Paulo.
5. Good Day for...
The tournament organisers (and FIFA). It is an obvious statement but it remains true nonetheless: The tournament will be more successful, and run more smoothly, the better the hosts fare and the longer they participate.
Victories will keep up the passionate support within Brazil and prevent some torn observers from swelling the number of those in cities around the country protesting vociferously against the costly hosting of the tournament.
Similarly, organisers and FIFA will be delighted that the opening game went off without a significant hitch. (Some floodlights at the ground briefly went out during the first half, but it did not significantly affect matters.) Considering that the finishing touches were still being applied to the Arena Corinthians on Thursday and that the stadium had not hosted a test event prior to the opening ceremony, all involved with hosting the tournament will be delighted that the stadium held up to the demands.
One game down, 63 to go.
6. Bad Day for...
The referees. The conspiracy theorists will have a field day with Nishimura's decision, reading much more into it than simply a bad misjudgment at an inopportune time. The officials for subsequent Brazil matches will be watched closely for similar "home calls."
7. Tomorrow's Schedule
Mexico vs. Cameroon (Group A: 5 p.m. GMT/12 p.m. ET)
The other two members of Brazil's group get their chance to impress in the possibly sweltering heat of Natal. Mexico struggled in qualifying but rarely fail to escape the group stages in these competitions, while Cameroon—having resolved the now traditional pre-tournament bonus payment disputes—have some exciting attacking players to support Samuel Eto'o.
With Brazil avoiding a surprise, both teams will know the winner of this one will put itself in strong position to also progress.
Spain vs. Netherlands (Group B: 8 p.m. GMT/3 p.m. ET)
The first match of the tournament involving two true heavyweights. A repeat of the 2010 final, holders Spain start their campaign to win a record fourth consecutive international tournament. Netherlands look a side in transition, with Louis van Gaal testing different formations in the build-up, but Spain lost their opener in South Africa to Switzerland, so...
Chile vs. Australia (Group B: 11 p.m. GMT/6 p.m. ET)
Outside the usual suspects, Chile are one of the sides many anticipate could have a real impact on the tournament. Having beaten England at Wembley this season, they showed off their impressive array of midfield and attacking talent and could thrive where others wilt in the climate.
Australia figure to be no neutral's favourites for victory, but they have some talented emerging players and will be motivated by the way many have written them off.