Brazil needed a big assist from the referee to pull out a 3-1 win over Croatia here Thursday in the opening match of the 2014 World Cup.

The five-time champions also benefited from a sparkling performance by budding superstar Neymar, who scored two goals in his first World Cup appearance.

Brazil, among the favorites to win the tournament, started slowly and most of the 62,000 spectators at Sao Paulo's Arena Corinthians were stunned to see Croatia take a 1-0 lead in the 12th minute on an own goal by Marcelo.

The Brazilian side responded by speeding up play and Neymar equalized with a goal in the 29th minute.

But the hosts seemed to leave their energy in the dressing home at the break, while Croatia, led by Real Madrid's Luka Modric, started to gain an edge in possession.

The match was still knotted at 1-1 with just over 20 minutes left in regulation when Fred dived in the area and Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura awarded Brazil a penalty, despite heated protests from the Croatians.

Neymar converted to put Brazil ahead, but the scrappy Balkan side continued to battle, forcing goalkeeper Julio Cesar to make several tough saves.

Cesar's last stop, on Nikica Jelavic, set up a rush that ended with Oscar's goal in the final minute. EFE