This is what makes the World Cup so special. Two countries, worlds apart in footballing terms, meeting on the biggest stage.
Brazil, five times world champions and number one in the world, facing North Korea, the last enigma in world football, making their first appearance in the competition since 1966 and ranked at number 105.
But as is typical on this stage, the game on paper was nothing like the one played out for real, on the coldest night ever recorded in world cup history. Despite expectation that Brazil would outclass North Korea from the start, they were left frustrated and with very little to take from the first 45 mins.
Other than a couple of limp shots, Brazil had done nothing to impress their plaudits until Robinho roamed onto the edge of the six yard box in the 20th minute and turned sharply to snap off a tight shot that could well have sneaked past the keeper. It was Brazil’s best chance of the half and the favourites would do little without the trickery of the Man City man for the rest of the game.
North Korea had their own fleeting chances: a well worked shot from a corner and even an audacious Pele-esque strike from inside their own half. But the real strength of this side was their air-tight defence. Brazil were never allowed a moment to breathe and their trademark ‘one-two’ passing game was smothered out by the five-man North Korean back row.
But a patient, methodical Brazil returned in the second half and on the 54th minute they got their break. Robinho was involved again in the build up but it was a thundering run from defender Maicon that opened up the North Korean barricade. The right back overlapped his midfielder to receive the ball almost at the by-line and somehow squeeze in the goal from an impossible angle. There will be much debate as to whether the Brazilian meant to shoot or pass but nevertheless, the wicked swerve that took the ball into the net will do nothing to ease goalkeeper’s fears of an already much-maligned world cup ball.
Like a locksmith unpicking a stubborn lock, Brazil continued to tease and prod their way into the game more and more and Robinho was at the heart of all of their successful ventures. It was he who eventually prised the Korean defensive door wide open, slipping the most irresistible pass through to Elano who side-footed home sublimely. Here was the masterful Brazil we were all expecting.
Yet somehow you knew North Korea wouldn’t go down without a fight and when Jong – who looked primed to become a hero from his emotional outburst during the national anthems – cushioned a raking cross perfectly into the path of Ji Yun Nam in the 88th minute, the striker finished emphatically, lifting the ball beautifully over Cesar to make it 2-1. Memories of North Korea’s shock win over Italy in 1966 must have begun to surface but before Jong and the North Koreans could complete the fairytale it was all over.
Brazil manager Dunga has been criticised for a conservative team choice and one can’t help thinking that without Robinho’s magic Brazil would have struggled even more to unpick this stubborn side. But in the end the natural order of things was restored and Brazil will be content with a patient and at times, masterful display, particularly from the virtuoso Robinho.
Brazil: Julio Cesar, Maicon, Lucio Captain, Juan Michel Bastos, Felipe Melo (Ramires, 84 Yellow card), Elano (Daniel, 73), Silva, Kaka (Nilmar, 78), Luis Fabiano, Robinho
North Korea: Myong-Guk Ri, Jong-Hyok Cha, Jun-Il Ri, Kwang-Chon Ri, Chol-Jin Pak, Nam-C Pak, Yun-Nam Ji, In-Guk Mun (K-I Kim, 80), Yong-Hak Ahn, Tae-Se Jong, Yong-Jo Hong Captain