It’s easy to disguise ignorance with mockery, and so it seems with this evening’s intriguing match between Brazil and North Korea. Before the match, ITV treats us to as many cliches about North Korea as they can fit into thirty minutes to cover up the fact that very few us know anything particularly significant about them. A quick look at the AFC qualifying rounds, however, is telling. North Korea were seeded higher in qualifying than 2002 qualifiers China or the 2007 AFC Asian Cup winners Iraq. In the final round of the tortuously long AFC qualifying competition, they knocked out Asian qualifiers Saudi Arabia as well as Iran.
In contrast with North Korea, everybody knows all about Brazil. Or, at least, they know all of the cliches about them. A cursory glance at the squad that Dunga brought to the finals (and, just as significantly, those that he left behind) confirms that this is a squad that has been sculpted to win the World Cup rather than to excite the senses of the purists. How, though, will they react to a team that they know almost nothing about? How do you prepare for such a match? Those predicting a record-breaking score for Brazil this evening are missing a trick. The value of Brazil’s stock could go down as well as up with this particular match, against opposition about whom we know so little.
In one respect at least, the World Cup finals have never seen anything like it. The temperature is comfortably below freezing at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, and the commentators can’t think of another World Cup match that has ever been played in such circumstances. It would be a cheap shot to suggest that North Korea may have experienced such conditions in Middlesbrough in 1966, but anyone with any knowledge of football broadcasting in Britain will already be fully aware that there is no shot too cheap for an ITV football commentator. It’s merely a matter of whether they make the mental link or not.
But for forty-five minutes, North Korea resolutely leave the script unread. They defend stoutly, crowding out the Brazilian midfield where necessary and other times playing a more zonal system, allowing Brazil to push forward to the edge of the penalty area before snuffing them out. They attempt the occasional foray into Brazilian half and win a couple of corners, but can’t find a way to create any clear opportunities. Julio Cesar, who seems to be wearing some sort of puffa jacket under his goalkeeping jersey, is largely untested but isn’t the complete spectator that he may have been anticipating being prior to the match. At the other end of the pitch, meanwhile, Brazil have the possession, corners and the throw-ins in nominally attacking positions, but their delivery from set pieces is poor. Half-time comes with the score goalless.
The one question mark over North Korea’s ability to hold onto their lead is their goalkeeper, Myong-Guk Ri, who has struggled with several shots that he should have caught comfortably, and eleven minutes into the second half he is exposed as Brazil finally take the lead. Maicon has far too much room on the right hand side, but opts to shoot from an implausibly narrow angle. Ri, however, is badly placed and the ball curls over around and in. It is such an improbable goal that it is quite likely that he didn’t even intend it (indeed, the ITV commentary team seem unable to countenance anything other that it was an own goal by the Korean goalkeeper), but they all count and Brazil have broken their deadlock.
Still, however, Brazil look somewhat laboured. Robinho is sparky enough in forward positions, but his hard work is undone by his team-mates, most notably Luis Fabiano, who seems momentarily possessed by the spirit of Joel Stransky (who drop-kicked South Africa to the 1995 Rugby World Cup in this very stadium), although Stransky would have merely shot over the crossbar rather than high, wide and handsome from ten yards, as Fabiano does six or seven minutes after the goal. After all of the huffing and puffing, though, Brazil double their lead with five seconds of brilliance. This, after all, is all it takes. Robinho’s pass cuts straight through the Korean defence, Elano runs onto it and rolls the ball into the bottom corner of the net.
With twelve minutes to go, Kaka, who has been anonymous to the point of invisibility, is replaced by Nilmar. He looks thrilled with his team’s two goal lead. Dunga (who, it is worth pointing out, is dressed like a Norwegian fisherman this evening), looks somewhat more perturbed by it all. Brazil have been less than inspiring this evening, and with a minute to play on the clock the match delivers the sting in the tail that their underwhelming performance has, frankly, warranted when North Korea pull a goal back. It is a marvellous goal. A long, diagonal pass to the left is nodded back inside by Jong and into the path of Yun Nam, who bursts through and places the ball tidily past Julio Cesar. It has come, however, five minutes too late. North Korea push on into stoppage time, but can’t find a second way through. The points go to Brazil, but the majority of the honour goes to the beaten North Korean team.
Brazil can only improve upon this performance, but will they? They seemed out of sorts and sluggish this evening and, no matter how uninspiring both Ivory Coast and Portugal may have been in cancelling each other out, more testing waters await in the group stages. Five days in, however, today might just turn out to be the day that the 2010 World Cup finals came to life. New Zealand’s last gasp equaliser against Slovakia at lunchtime (their first ever point in the finals of the competition) and North Korea’s performance this evening have breathed a little colour into a competition that was in danger of starting to look a little stale.
Thanks again to Historical Football Kits for the use of their graphics.