The World's Blog: Day 5

All Whites prove not all that bad, Ronaldo and Drogba played but so did their teams, and North Korea does not cower to any world power, even Brazil. The World's Blog continues Day 5 of Group coverage.

New Zealand 1, Slovakia 1

Twenty-eight years to day the since our first ever game in the World Cup finals, New Zealand made our long-awaited return to the World Cup. Secretly, every New Zealander hoped for something better than a noble loss - and we got it in the most dramatic fashion.

After a promising start featuring some surprisingly enterprising attacking football from the Kiwis, the much more fancied Slovaks started to take control. We finished the half barely clinging on, but went in at 0-0.

The second half couldn't have got off to a more depressing start. Just five minutes in and Slovakia scored a very well taken goal. Things were looking bad - New Zealand didn't have enough attacking strength, and pushing forward to look for the equalizer was risky because Slovakia were incredibly dangerous on the counter-attack.

As time ticked down, New Zealand pushed forward looking for a goal, and came close - a good header missed just to the left of goal. Just when all looked lost, defender Winston Reid showed up completely out of position to head the goal that stunned two countries with just seconds remaining.

Slovakia were cruelly robbed of a win in their first ever World Cup appearance, but that's certainly not the story here. Just New Zealand's third ever goal in the World Cup, and our first result better than a three goal loss. Despite being ranked 44 places below Slovakia, the result and performance didn't show it. You’d still have to be incredibly brave to give us a chance against Italy - but anything's possible. When the sun rises tomorrow and we see reports of the match on the front page of every newspaper, it’ll still be a hard to believe. There’s no doubt the entire country is both stunned and ecstatic – New Zealand football’s best result ever.

You know how sometimes you see something that is so shocking, you think, "Wait, what?" Like, did that really happen? It couldn't have happened, right?

That's how I felt watching Slovakia's first-ever World Cup match Tuesday. Rather than reveling in the excitement of history being made, and of my team improbably leading Group F, I'm thinking, "Wait, what?"

I mean, it was all there. An opener against the consensus worst team in the tournament in New Zealand. A game in which Slovakia had thoroughly outplayed the Kiwis. And a surprising tie between Italy and Paraguay. It all added up to Slovakia being in a solid first place in the group.

And then Slovakia decided defense was for suckers, and New Zealand's Shane Smeltz headed in a goal in the last minute of stoppage time to deliver a big kick to the. ...shins. ...of Slovak fans everywhere.

So while I'm sure there were things I liked about the game, I can't think of any right now because quite frankly I'm in a bit of shock. I mean, New Zealand, seriously? Great country, nice people, terrible soccer. That was the script. But no, it had to be ruined. Well, bring on Paraguay.

Ivory Coast 0, Portugal 0

The neutral supporter tuning in to Portugal-Ivory Coast would be forgiven for thinking that the African side had just one player - Didier Drogba. All the pre-match hype was whether he’d play, or not, or how much. If you were playing a drinking game involving how many times the cameras showed Drogba on the sideline, you’d have been hammered by 8:15 a.m.

As it turns out, the Elephants have a bunch of other good players, too. The Toure brothers and Didier Zokora showed particularly well. The men in orange certainly looked the better side in the 0-0 draw.

It wasn’t always pretty. Cristiano Ronaldo could have stolen all three points with a ridiculous strike early on that hit post. Aside from that, the most interesting part of the first half was hearing the ESPN commentators slam the match for being uninteresting.

But Ivory Coast tried to make up for that. They had many good attacking runs, aided by a great performance by Gervinho, whose juking and jiving frustrated the Portuguese defense all match.

Drogba came on as a sub and had little influence, staying out of danger and away from contact. Which I understand, since he does have a broken arm, and, as a sensible human, he probably prefers to avoid excruciating pain.

But the Elephants earned their point, and will be confident going into their next match against Brazil. Even though they'll be playing against, you know, Brazil.

The aptly named Group of Death has shown why it received that moniker. A tough nil – nil draw in the opening match of group G.  The lineup for Portugal was empty of Simao the leading scorer for Portugal in the qualifying stage of this World Cup. In his place was Danny. The starting 11 for the Ivory Coast was also missing a key asset. Didier Drogba was on the bench with a broken arm. He did come into the game in the 66’ becoming essentially a non-factor.

The match started out as what appeared to be a training session for Portugal with crisp passes and much of the first ten minutes in the attacking third of the field.  However, weak first half performances overall from both teams all but assured the one point they received. Only one good shot was taken in the first half by either team. This chance came in the 11’ when Real Madrid striker Cristiano Ronaldo took a promising shot from 35 yards out only to be thwarted by the woodwork. Shortly afterward, Ronaldo received a yellow card just outside of the Elephants’ penalty box for what appeared to be nothing more than some chatter after a hard tackle from Guy Demel. The first half ended much less enthusiastically then it started.

Portugal stepped up in the second half. Shortly after replacing Danny and regaining his rightful place on the pitch, Simao hit a beautiful cross right to the penalty spot, where Liedson’s waiting head knocked the ball towards the underside of the crossbar only to be grabbed by Barry at the last second. As the game clock ticked away the Ivory Coast players began hitting the pitch like rocks, seemingly determined to run out the stoppage time and gain their one point. After wasting 90 seconds at the corner flag setting up for a last ditch effort the Ivoirians played a short ball in and the referee blew his whistle signaling the end. Portugal had many chances to bury the ball in the back of the net but only put forth effort on a few attempts.

This game was played in the middle third of the field with neither goalkeeper really getting any work, and with both teams expecting a loss from Brazil and a convincing win over North Korea neither one wanted to walk away without at least one point, making this game altogether forgettable. Portugal plays North Korea on Monday at 4:30am PT. They will look to get back on the right track and prove that they have what it takes to be here.

Brazil 2, Korea DPR 1

I watched the match in a crowded Brazilian barbecue house in Los Angeles with a large number of rambunctious and passionate Brazilians, all of us eager to see Brazil begin their campaign to avenge their 2006 loss to France in Germany. People of all nationalities came, hoping to get a glimpse of just what makes the legendary yellow jersey so synonymous with beautiful soccer. They would not go home disappointed, as the crowd made it their duty to put on just as good a show as their team.

The game started off rather slow, with North Korea predictably opting to bring an organized, defensive approach to the game. They kept numbers back, and the Brazilians sent wave after wave of step overs, heel flicks, and no look passes to attempt to unlock the compact back line. The patrons at the bar, however, wasted no time getting into the game as they used a combination of noise makers, samba, and an endless flow of ice cold Brazilian beer to show their support.

A scoreless first half left a few raised eyebrows, but those quickly disappeared as the half time entertainment, in the form of scantily clad carnaval dancers, erased the anxiety. Their performance was interrupted early in the second half, however, when Maicon got behind the defense on the end of a cutting Elano through-ball and put Brazil ahead with a brilliant outside of the foot strike, sending the crowd into pure elation and ecstasy.

The Brazilian faithful knew one goal was all their team would need, and the rippling net signaled the start of celebration. The Spanish commentary was completely drowned out as the samba was turned up, the drinks began to flow, and the dancing commenced. The samba didn’t stop even with the final whistle, as the supporters drowned in their elation at their heroes return to the World Cup.

Brazilians regard the group play as almost an extension of qualifying, and the real party will certainly begin in the first elimination round. For now, however, the entire nation will celebrate the spoils of their hard earned 2 – 1 victory.

The start of the game was an anxious time for me, not just because I knew I was going to blog about this game, but also because I skipped out on a meeting with my manager to do so.  I just hoped that she didn’t notice I wasn’t there.

I went to the cafeteria in my building, they have a TV in one corner and there were already people watching when I arrived.  The crowd around me must have been similar to the crowd at the stadium, it was me, an adopted fan, and everyone else was for Brazil.

Well, on with the game; at first the group watching with me was small but as it got closer to noon more and more people stopped to watch; after all it was Brazil and they “surely” were going crush North Korea.  But as we approached the 30-minute mark the conversation started to change and the admiration of North Koreas defense became the main topic; by half time it was pure shock that the game was tied.

Unfortunately, the Koreans could not hold off Brazil and the room erupted as Brazil finally netted in the 55th minute.  Despite going down a second goal, all was not lost; in the 89th minute Ji Yun-Nam became a house hold name in North Korea as he pulled his team and country within a goal of the best team in the world.  In the end, it was not to be, but my fellow lunch time viewers and I joyfully applauded a brilliant effort by the Koreans.

Avenging the 1966 loss to Portugal is now the only thought on my mind and after this performance, the thought has merit.

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