- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

BERLIN — Brazil was ready to bring on Carnival, and so were the thousands of proud, loud fans who sambaed their way to Germany to cheer for the defending World Cup champions.

Croatia had other ideas.

Kaka scored in the 44th minute yesterday, but Croatia made the Brazilians work for every bit of the 1-0 victory that extended their record winning streak to eight games at the World Cup.

While the Croatian fans were delighted with how their team played, the Brazilians were relieved to get out with a win.

But no one will be thinking the world champs are invincible anymore.

“Croatia did not deserve to lose,” Croatia coach Zlatko Kranjcar said. “We were better for most parts of the match. Unfortunately, we didn’t exploit our chances and half-chances. If you don’t take your chances against a team like Brazil, they will punish you.”

Croatia peppered goalkeeper Dida with several shots in the second half, including one by Dado Prso in the 51st minute that went off the Brazilian’s hands. If captain Niko Kovac hadn’t left with a rib injury just in the 41st minute, the outcome might have been very different.

Croatia now plays Japan on Sunday. Brazil plays the Aussies on Sunday.

The Brazilians have Ronaldinho, the two-time world player of the year, and a cast of all-stars in Ronaldo, Kaka, Adriano and Cafu. With reserves who would start on any other team, everyone has tagged them as the heavy favorites to be partying in Berlin after the July 9 final.

This was simply a dress rehearsal, but it started with all the trappings of the real thing. Brazilian and Croatian fans took over the streets of Berlin early in the day, and the sounds of samba filled the air. Deafening roars shook the stadium when both teams were introduced, and bright red flares lit up the sky as the game ended.

A fan in a Croatia shirt even got on the field with less than 10 minutes to go, running around until Prso led him off.

Brazil didn’t quite play its part, though.

It struggled with Croatia’s annoying defense and Ronaldo, he of the great weight debate, looked less than impressive. He appeared slow and out of shape, and was replaced by Robinho in the 69th minute.

“Ronaldo hadn’t been playing for two months,” Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira said. “It’s natural, in a hot day like today, that he felt the lack of rhythm. Certainly, from now on he will get in form little by little.”

Instead it was Kaka leading Brazil’s attack.

Dribbling up the right side in the 44th minute, Cafu spotted Kaka in the middle and made a perfect pass. Kaka collected it and was past Niko Kranjcar with one quick tap of the ball.

The 21-year-old son of Croatia’s coach has been a concern defensively, and it was soon clear why. Kranjcar wasn’t anywhere close as Kaka stutter-stepped, giving the Brazilian time to look up and check his aim from about 20 yards out.

As Kranjcar closed in, Kaka drew back and struck hard with his left foot, and it was clear from the minute his boot hit the ball it was going to be good.

“We had to be compact against them and we did that,” Croatian defender Josip Simunic said. “The difference was that for five seconds there we didn’t concentrate.”

As the ball sailed toward the goal, Brazil’s reserves rushed off the bench, thrusting their arms in the air when the ball settled into the upper left corner of the net. Kaka screamed in jubilation, throwing his arms out wide, and Roberto Carlos jumped on his back for a short, celebratory piggyback ride.

It was the first World Cup goal for Kaka, voted best midfielder in the Champions League in 2005.

“I think I personally had a good start in the World Cup,” said Kaka, who has improved tremendously from the player who was the 23rd man on the roster in 2002. “I scored a goal, participated in several moves.”

The Brazilian fans, who had been quiet early compared to the rowdy Croats, erupted with whistles, tooting horns and chants of “Bra-zil! Bra-zil!”

But the Croatians weren’t giving in that easily. They led Brazil 1-0 in a friendly in Split, Croatia, last summer before settling for a tie, and they showed no signs of being intimidated when they fell behind yesterday.

Prso gave them their best chance, taking a hard shot from inside the box that went off Dida’s hands. Three minutes later, Ivan Klasnic took a shot from about 15 yards, but it went straight into Dida’s hands.

Marko Babic also had a chance, but his shot in the 70th minute found Dida’s hands, too, and Kranjcar’s follow-up header went wide.

“One shot changed the match,” Zlatko Kranjcar said. “We demonstrated some great play, only the result didn’t go our way.”

Still, the Croatians served notice they’re a team to watch.

After two near-misses in the 15th minute, one a Roberto Carlos shot that goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa had to punch over the net, the Croatians settled down and started annoying the Brazilians with their trademark defense. They packed in defensively, refusing to allow many man-to-man chances.

They gave Brazil so much trouble that Parreira was up and pacing by the 28th minute, a rarity. When Kovac was pulled down by Adriano shortly after, he called Adriano and Ze Roberto over for a quick meeting.

But Kovac’s departure opened things up for Brazil, and Kaka took quick advantage.

“Things will improve in the next matches,” Kaka said. “It’s quite normal, a match being like this in the debut.”

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