Brazil And Croatia Open World Cup Play On The Pitch

Brazil and Croatia face off in the first game of the 2014 World Cup. Organizers hope the start of the tournament directs attention back on the field and away from the problems in preparation.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Spoiler alert, soccer fans. In that first match of the World Cup, right now, Brazil and Croatia are tied with one goal apiece and about 27 minutes to go in the second half. NPR's Tom Goldman is there in Sao Paulo covering the match he joined us from the stadium before the game as the crowd poured in.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: You've got tons of yellow and green t-shirted Brazilian fans. You've also got the color clash of red and white checked Croatian fans, and they're playing the first game of the World Cup.

BLOCK: And what have the expectations been for this matchup, Tom?

GOLDMAN: Huge expectations for Brazil. Brazil has won a record five world cups. They think now that it's on their soil, that they are one of the top teams in the world. They're ranked number three in the world. I think the attitude is, let's get this party started. These billions of dollars that were spent - let's see if they were spent, you know - we've spent them, now let's get going with the party - and so, great expectations for this thing - great expectations that it's a success - great expectations for one player in particular - 22-year-old Neymar, this dazzling forward winger for the Brazilian team who people are saying has the potential to be another Pele. So there's tremendous pressure on this young man to perform even though his manager has built a very strong team around him so he doesn't have to do it all. He definitely will feel the pressure to have a transcendent World Cup.

BLOCK: Brazil is going up against Croatia. Croatia is way down in the FIFA rankings and they have the task of going up in the opening game against the home team - against Brazil.

GOLDMAN: Yeah - a rotten draw, for sure. Plus they've got one of their best players out because he got a red card during qualifying, and he's serving his punishment today. They do have a talented team and they've got a good defense, but I don't think anyone gives them a chance of certainly beating Brazil. They do give them a chance at perhaps being the second team from the group to get through. The top two teams in each of the eight groups advance to the knockout stage.

BLOCK: Tom, is there any sign of the anger and the protests that have been bubbling up on the streets of Sao Paulo - any of that filtering inside the stadium?

GOLDMAN: So far I haven't seen any, and you've got this thing guarded like Fort Knox to the nth degree. Police and security are everywhere. Everyone here is in a festive mood. I walked with a throng of people - most of them yellow and green-clad Brazilian fans. And everyone seemed to be in a happy mood, and you really don't have a sense of that. And of course, this is what Brazilian authorities want. This is what FIFA wants - is to forget all that ugly stuff that's happening outside the stadium and focus on what's happening inside the stadium. I like to call this World Cup the inside-outside World Cup.

BLOCK: And Tom, talk just a bit about some of the other teams that you're going to be watching especially carefully over the next few weeks.

GOLDMAN: Well, we have what we call our usual suspects. You know, you've got defending champions, Spain. They're ranked number one in the world - very strong. They've got a chance to win. Of course, Argentina, with the transcendent Lionel Messi, the man many consider the best the world. Argentina is given a very good chance. You've got Germany a perennial power and a - definitely a contender. You've got Portugal, with the other great star-to-be people are expecting, Cristiano Ronaldo. Unfortunately, the U.S. has both Germany and Portugal in its group - so a very tough road for the United States.

BLOCK: And we've talked about - on the program, Tom - that the coach of the U.S. men's national team, Jurgen Klinsmann, has come right out and said it's not realistic for the U.S. to win a World Cup. They're just not ready. They're not at that level. But I bet you have tons of U.S. fans there, in Brazil, who would love to see Klinsmann proved wrong.

GOLDMAN: Oh, absolutely. I will say that Landon Donovan, the man Jurgen Klinsmann left off this team to travel to Brazil - in his debut with ESPN, Landon Donovan said Jurgen Klinsmann is wrong and the Americans do have a shot. It's the American way to think with that kind of optimism.

BLOCK: We should explain, ESPN hired Landon Donovan to come - as a commentator during the World Cup.

GOLDMAN: Yes.

BLOCK: Tom, thanks so much. Have a great time.

GOLDMAN: Thanks Melissa.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Tom Goldman at the stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil where right now, in the second half, Brazil is tied with Croatia, one to one, in the opening match of the World Cup.

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