By Robbie Blakeley, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazil began their World Cup campaign with a less than emphatic 2-1 win over North Korea on Tuesday, but will be cheered by their Group G rivals Portugal and Ivory Coast’s failure to score in their opener earlier in the day. Brazil’s result never looked in doubt, but still raises some questions as to their ability to secure a sixth World Cup title.
Nearly 100,000 people packed Copacabana beach to follow the game on two huge screens, whilst in Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium the teams were greeted by the usual wall of vuvuzela noise, though this waned significantly towards the end of a goalless and uninspired first half. With Kaka and César both overcoming injuries, coach Dunga fielded his strongest line up, but not until the second half did they begin to gel.
Maicon finally gave Brazil the lead on 55 minutes with a sharp, tight-angle strike past the Korean goalkeeper, and then Elano finished off a fine move with Robinho to make it 2-0. Far from finishing off their opponents, though, they then conceded late on to make it 2-1, but there was little hope of an upset as the clock ran out on North Korea’s hopes.
Elsewhere in their group, the path to the second round was cleared somewhat by a disappointing goalless draw between Portugal and Ivory Coast, with neither Cristiano Ronaldo nor Didier Drogba able to provide the spark to break the deadlock. Brazil will take on Ivory Coast on Sunday, with their final group game against Portugal on June 25th.
Meanwhile, the World Cup has already produced enough drama to keep the fans hooked, even if the overall quality has been somewhat lacking. Hosts South Africa kicked off the tournament with a 1-1 draw against Mexico last Friday and the Bafana Bafana opened the tournament’s scoring with a wonder strike by midfielder Siphiwe Thsabalala, only for Rafa Marquez to cancel out the goal 11 minutes from time. Only the outside of the post prevented the home nation recording a memorable victory deep in injury time.
In-fighting amongst the French squad severely affected their opening game against Uruguay. France coach Raymond Domenech announced his team to the players on the eve of the match, and upon learning Barcelona forward Thierry Henry was to be left on the bench, Fracnk Ribery and Nicolas Anelka threatened to boycott the game. The lack of spirit showed as Les Bleus played out a drab 0-0 draw.
Diego Maradona’s Argentina side collected a confidence-boosting three points against Nigeria with a 1-0 win and Lionel Messi was in inspirational form, only to be kept off the score sheet by an equally impressive performance from Nigeria goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama.
The same could not be said of England ‘keeper Robert Green, whose calamitous error gifted USA a 1-1 draw on Saturday afternoon. England captain Steven Gerrard had given his side the lead in the fourth minute, before Green spilled Clint Dempsey’s weak effort into the goal for a share of the points.
Elsewhere, Germany scored four against a hapless Australia side, whilst the talented Netherlands team edged a nervy encounter with Denmark 2-0, thanks to a Simon Poulsen own goal and a Dirk Kuyt strike. Japan gave themselves a real chance of proceeding to the knockout stages with a 1-0 win over Cameroon, and defending champions Italy started poorly against Paraguay, managing only a 1-1 draw. But with games against New Zealand and Slovakia to come, expect to see Marcelo Lippi’s men in the latter stages once again.