In his 50th match with Brazil, the 22-year-old forward scored a goal in each half to help the hosts survive an early scare and escape disaster in front of a packed Itaquerao Stadium after Croatia had taken an early lead.
He equalized in the 29th minute, clearing a defender in midfield before making a run toward the edge of the area and firing a perfectly placed low shot that went in off the post.
The game turned on a controversial penalty awarded by Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura in the 71st minute when striker Fred went down inside the area under minimal contact from defender Dejan Lovren.
“It’s important to start these tournaments with the right foot, with a victory,” Neymar said. “I’m happy that I got to score, but the entire team deserves credit. We maintained our calm and showed we could battle back.”
The Croatians were furious.
“If that was a penalty, we should be playing basketball. Those kinds of fouls are penalized there,” Croatia coach Niko Kovac said.
“That is shameful, this is not a World Cup referee. He had one kind of criteria for them and another for us. The rules were not the same,” Kovac said.
As Croatia searched desperately for an equalizer, Oscar added to the lead in the first minute of injury time with a toe poke from just outside the penalty area.
The host nation hasn’t lost the last nine times it played in the opening match. South Africa was held by Mexico to a 1-1 draw four years ago.
A draw would have been a huge disappointment for Brazil, which had won its opening match the last eight times. The five-time champion entered the home tournament having won 15 of its last 16 games, including five in last year’s Confederations Cup, the warm-up tournament it won. The team hadn’t been held to a draw in the opener since a 1-1 result against Sweden in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.
“The team didn’t give up,” Brazil defender David Luiz said “We knew it would be hard but we played well and got that first goal and then the victory.”