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    Brazil Beats Croatia, 3-1, in World Cup Opener

    Brazil players celebrate after scoring a third goal during the group A World Cup soccer match against Croatia in the opening game of the tournament at Itaquerao Stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 12, 2014.
    Brazil players celebrate after scoring a third goal during the group A World Cup soccer match against Croatia in the opening game of the tournament at Itaquerao Stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 12, 2014.
    Mike Richman
    Brazil has taken a first step toward winning the World Cup, as is hugely expected, but the host country needed a bit of help from a referee.

    After falling behind 1-0 to heavy underdog Croatia in the 11th minute, Brazil recovered to win, 3-1, in the opening game of the World Cup Thursday before 62,000 fans at the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo.

    Brazilian superstar Neymar scored two goals, including one on a penalty kick, and teammate Oscar added an insurance score during injury time.

    The game was tainted by controversy. Neymar's penalty kick gave Brazil a 2-1 lead in the 71st minute and came after a questionable call when teammate Fred fell in the area. Television replays showed Fred threw himself to the ground after minimal contact with Croatian defender Dejan Lovren. Croatian players charged the referee to plead their case but to no avail.

    A 'ridiculous' call

    Afterward, Croatia's coach, Niko Kovac, was angry with the referee who made the call, Yuichi Nishimura of Japan. Kovac said Nishimura's decision to award the spot kick to Neymar was "ridiculous" and said the referee was "out of his depth."

    "I cannot blame Fred because everybody tries to do that," Kovac said. "This is part of the sport, whether you like it or not. What I want is for the referees to stick to the laws of the game, applying them equally to both teams. The referee was well-placed; he was not unsighted.  He saw everything and he took that decision."

    Nishimura later nullified Croatia's potential tying goal in the 83rd minute by ruling that Ivica Olic fouled Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar during the sequence.

    Croatia took the lead initially in the world's premier sporting event when Brazilian defender Marcelo inadvertently kicked the ball into his own goal.  

    Brazil's Group A match against Croatia was the only game Thursday. On Friday, Mexico and Cameroon clash in Natal in another Group A game, while defending champion Spain plays the Netherlands in Salvador and Chile faces Australia in Cuiaba in Group B matchups.

    Spain beat the Netherlands, 1-0 in overtime, in the 2010 World Cup championship.

    Spain aiming for another championship

    Spain's goalie, Ikar Casillas, voiced confidence Thursday that his country can repeat as World Cup champions.

    "I understand that any team playing Spain will do anything to beat us," Casillas said.  "I think this is also in ourselves. If we have the ambition, the willingness, and more than anything the dream which made us world champion four years ago. The team will show itself to be strong and will show itself with clear ideas. We intend to go as far as possible and defend this title we won four years ago, which won't be easy."

    Brazil is the consensus favorite and is seeking a record sixth World Cup title and its first since 2002. The Brazilians are ranked third in the world by World Cup organizer FIFA behind Spain at No.1 and Germany in the second spot.

    Other teams expected to challenge for this year's trophy include Argentina, Brazil's neighbor and fierce rival, along with European giants Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal.

    Thursday's game followed an elaborate opening ceremony at the Arena Corinthians featuring American pop star Jennifer Lopez -also known as J-Lo - Brazilian pop star Claudia Leitte and rapper Pitbull.

    The tournament is played in two stages. The first lasts two weeks, with four teams in each of eight groups playing games against one another. The top two teams in each group then move on to a single elimination bracket, with a champion to be crowned on July 13.

    Germany, which is aiming for its fourth World Cup title, is in the so-called "Group of Death" with fourth-ranked Portugal, the United States and Ghana, all of which made it to the round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup.  Another group to watch is the only other to feature more than one top-10 team.  It consists of seventh-ranked Uruguay, ninth-ranked Italy,10th-ranked England and No. 28 Costa Rica.

    Protests continue

    VOA's Scott Bobb reports hundreds of people gathered in downtown Rio de Janeiro to protest social policies and the billions of dollars Brazil spent on football stadiums.  The demonstrators, saying they plan to protest throughout the World Cup, say officials are neglecting the social services of Brazil.

    In Sao Paulo, dozens of protesters clashed with police near the Arena Corinthians stadium, which hosted the opening match.  The run-up to the competition has been plagued by years of construction delays and budget overruns.

    The government spent $11.5 billion to prepare for the month-long event, including building or upgrading stadiums in 12 cities hosting games among the 32-team field.

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