Mysterious North Korea & Un-Brazilian Brazil

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By Lawrence Ostlere

Brazil versus North Korea brought two sides together from opposite ends of the World Cup spectrum. As the tournament’s most successful country, Brazil have won the World Cup five times on four different continents, whilst North Korea embark on only their second campaign, the first 44 years ago.

North Korea prepared in a public gym in Joburg this week, amongst the astounded South African public, and very little is known about their squad, except that most play in their modest national league. With this in mind, it was an impressive feat that they held Brazil’s world class players for so long before falling to a 2-1 defeat.

North Korea’s terrific run in 1966 saw them knock out Italy and then build up a three nil lead in the quarter final against Portugal, only to be famously undone by a one-man show from the magnificent Eusabio, perhaps the greatest ever individual World Cup performance. Since then, however, North Korea have either withdrawn from the tournament on political grounds, or failed to qualify.

But despite their footballing track-record, or lack of it, and rather unusual preparation to the tournament, North Korea evidently have a decent team. Their defensive record in qualifying of conceding just 5 goals is impressive, and this resistance was on show against Brazil, beaten only by two goals of the sort of quality they’ve never faced before. They also have an attacking threat in Jong Tae Se who plays in Japan, dubbed ‘the people’s Rooney’ for his top heavy physique and prolific goal-scoring – though the player himself says he prefers Drogba.

Manager Kim Jong Hun puts North Korea’s progress down to their government’s investment in football. The strict regime of Kim Jong Il has supposedly supported the team’s development, cancelling the national league schedule to arrange friendlies in preparation – though clearly the investment has not extended to their facilities in South Africa, other than local gym membership perhaps.

Rumours have been circulating about the influence of the dictatorship. It has been suggested that the North Korean public will only be shown games if they win, whilst their have been whispers that only specially selected fans have been allowed to go to South Africa, or even that the fans are paid Chinese actors. Whatever the truth, let us hope North Korea did see their team’s performance, because they were excellent despite defeat.

Whilst North Korea outperformed expectations, the opposite can be said of their opponents, who were saved from embarrassment by two moments of magic. The first, a curling shot by Maicon from an impossible angle, the second a brilliant run and pass from Robinho, finished with composure by Elano. But despite the obvious qualities of the team that make Brazil second favourites to win the tournament behind Spain, I am not excited by this side, like some of their teams in the past.

Brazil’s 2002 side contained a frightening attacking trio – the three Rs, Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho – who scored goals with flair and skill. This year their main attacking threats come in the shape of Luis Fabiano, Kaka and Robinho. Whilst Luis Fabiano is an excellent goal scorer he does not bring the Brazilian magic fans across the world come to see. Kaka looks tired and below his best, perhaps suffering from the lack of game-time he’s endured at Real Madrid this season due to injury. Robinho, then, is the only ray of light in yellow currently. He certainly performed well against North Korea, but his ability to shine against the best teams has been questioned in the past and thus Dunga would be unwise to rely on Robinho too heavily.

Dunga has a strained relationship with his country’s media, despite his status as a national hero after captaining the team to glory in USA 1994. His stubbornness to pursue an organised and methodical approach has been criticised as not doing things the Brazilian way, and legendary midfielder Socrates has questioned Dunga’s policy of choosing to select players who work hard and defend well – in the mould of Dunga himself. The exclusion of Ronaldinho from his squad was undoubtedly the biggest surprise, a player who has started to re-find his way at AC Milan, and still possesses an array of tricks that could unlock any defence in the world.

The struggle to open up North Korea hinted at the need for such a talent, at least on the bench, but Brazil will have to do it Dunga’s way if they are to win this time. While they failed to truly impress, they may take heart from the fact that almost no side has so far illustrated World Cup winning credentials – enter Spain.

Lawrence Ostlere is a freelance writer and can be reached at:

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