Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Day 5

The consensus seems to have been that if any day was going to be the one when this tournament sprung to life, it would be this one. Group G - this year's Group of Death - gets underway, with Ivory Coast facing Portugal in the afternoon and the potentially extremely weird fixture of Brazil v North Korea to follow in the evening.

Before this, though, the small matter of New Zealand vs Slovakia from Group F was up, with both teams looking to capitalise on Italy and Paraguay's fairly dismal draw last night. I say both teams - with New Zealand as rank outsiders for the tournament at a widely-quoted 2000-1 in their first appearance at a World Cup finals since 1982 and their outside-Oceania record of a resounding zero victories, getting anything from this fixture would certainly be something. In the event, they proved to be no pushovers. Slovakia took the lead through a Vittek header and proceeded to sit on their one goal advantage against a well-organised Kiwi side. Come the 93rd minute, however, and New Zealand grabbed an unlikely equaliser through Winston Reid, to secure their first ever World Cup point.

This was to be a day for unfancied teams offering up far more resistance than they had any right to - as, after a 0-0 draw between the Ivorians and the Portuguese about which I have literally nothing to say having not seen the game nor any 'highlights' from it, North Korea faced Brazil and did themselves and their curious, secretive nation proud.

Brazil won 2-1, having been 2-0 up through a fine Maicon strike from an acute angle and an Elano goal slotted first time from an exceptional Robinho ball (who was, himself, brilliant during the very entertaining match) but met with a well-drilled and extremely unfazed North Korean side. North Korea scored late on through Yun-Nam Ji; which in itself is something of a triumph. Like New Zealand, the Asian side's odds in this tournament were well into the thousands - their only previous appearance having been in 1966 - and to even imagine them scoring against Brazil on this biggest of stages would have been laughable before the game; particularly with most pundits predicting a Brazilian rout. Brazil will get better - and North Korea might never reach higher - but this, I would say, was the first genuinely entertaining match since the opening game.

North Korea are what the World Cup is about, in their own way - in that, through football, we are afforded a glimpse into a culture and a glimpse at a people that we have no other way of engaging with. We saw Tae-Se Jong (their outstanding player of the evening) crying during his country's national anthem - and immediately the Western mindest is to question whether this is national pride or terrifying brainwashing - and we saw the banner in the crowd saying "forget politics for 90 minutes". Yes, football allows us to 'forget politics', but it also brings political differences into sharp relief. The North Korean team's joy was for the people of the country, not its oppressive regime. We can only hope that back in Pyongyang some of those people are actually able to see the highlights of what was a truly great moment for them in terms of demonstrating their own humanity to the rest of the world. Another performance like that and they might even end up as a lot of people's second-favourite-team this time round.

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