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Neymar gets Brazil’s party started in 3-1 victory over Croatia

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, the 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.

Fans began arriving by the thousands more than six hours before kickoff - and the majority of them came without tickets, just wanting to be near the first World Cup in Brazil in 64 years. And just as they did in last summer’s Confederations Cup, the fans inside the stadium - and out - finished the national anthem acapella after the stadium PA went silent following the first verse.

The fans did not quiet - nor did many sit down - until Croatia took a 1-0 lead in the 11th minute on a Brazil own-goal.

Ivica Olic sent a cross in from the left wing for Nikica Jelavic, who deflected it just enough to send the ball into the path of a surprised Marcelo, who knocked it into the net.

Shortly afterward the late-afternoon skies above the stadium grew dark and cloudy. Even God, it seemed, couldn’t bear to watch.

Jelavic, something of a surprise starter, very nearly doubled Croatia’s lead in the 28th minute, but Brazilian keeper Julio Cesar-who plays in Major League Soccer for Toronto FC-made a leaping two-handed save on his header at the back post.

Perhaps Brazil took that as a warning because it immediately counter-attacked 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 net for a low left-footed shot that kissed the right post as it 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 Stripe Pletikosa kept Croatia in the game.

But Neymar got the best of Pletikosa once again in the 71st minute to win, scoring with the other foot on a penalty kick.

Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura awarded the penalty when Croatia’s Dejan Lovren pulled a Brazilian player down in the box. Neymar shutter-stepped, then paused, approaching the ball before sending a right-footed rocket toward the top left corner. Pletikosa guessed right and leaped that way, but the shot was too strong, bouncing off his hands and into the netting.

Neymar, his face now a mix of happiness and relief, raced to the touchline, raised his hands and looked to the skies, which had cleared.

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. Neymar then walked to the sidelines, his work done.

Moments later, Oscar clinched the win with an insurance goal in stoppage time. And the fireworks erupted once again.

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