SAO PAULO (USA TODAY) -- Most of the U.S. players watched the World Cup opener between Brazil and Croatia at a viewing party at the team hotel. And most reacted like typical fans when Fred's flop resulted in a penalty kick for Brazil. But they also took away an important lesson.
In soccer, as in preschool, the same rules apply: Keep your hands to yourself.
In Brazil's 3-1 victory, Croatia's Dejan Lovren put his hand on Fred's shoulder in the box and though Fred's fall was full of theatrics, Brazil was awarded a penalty kick, which resulted in a Neymar goal.
So, Tim Howard, what did you think about the call? "It sucks for Croatia, that's what I think," the U.S. goalkeeper said with a laugh. "That's part of the game. Referees have got to get those things right. It's a big moment and it's not easy being a referee, but it's important that those are taken care of."
U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones has never met a hard tackle he didn't like. His penchant for amassing yellow cards gives American fans fits, but his aggressive nature also gives the team needed bite. Even so, Jones acknowledged he has to react with his head and not with his hands (or elbows or cleats) on Monday when the team meets Ghana in Natal.
Earlier in the week, a FIFA referee met with the U.S. team, as is the case with all 32 squads, to review the rules and points of emphasis. "We have to watch out with hands in the box and on corner kicks," Jones said. Then, he added with a smile, "Especially with me with yellow yards."
Before the U.S. team left for Natal on Friday, the festivities, and controversy, of the prior day were still fresh. "As a defender that was a tough one to see," U.S. defender Matt Besler said. "But I think it's a good one to see because it's a lesson that some of learn just by watching, that it's going to be called tight in the penalty box so you have to be careful."
The referee's botched call in the opener certainly won't be the last of the tournament, or the worst, and more controversial dives are still to come. Even so, there's resignation that feigned injuries are part of the game. "The players, the fans and the referees, we would like to do away with it at all cost," Graham Zusi says. "It exists in all leagues across the world."
"It's ridiculous," Croatia coach Niko Kovac said after the loss. "If we continue in this way, we will have a circus."
"Brazil doesn't need any help from the referees," he said, pointing his finger at the officials and not Fred. "Everybody is trying to do that. Like it or not, it's part of football. I don't blame him. I blame the referee," he said.
Zusi was in the player's lounge watching the game with his teammates when the questionable call was made. "I have mixed emotions. That's going to happen. The system isn't perfect, but you have to be ready for it," Zusi said. "We've all been well versed on how the referees are going to be approaching the games. Little things we can take from it on referees don't want us to do, go up in their faces and touch them."
Even so, a controversial call didn't dampen an otherwise joyous start, even for those teams with no rooting interest. Besler had his hotel room window cracked open when Brazil scored. The entire city roared. "It gave me chills," Besler said. "The energy of the country is finally here."