Northern exposure a real treat
The denial of a wonderful story may well be the idiom to remember this tournament by, such has been the sense of anti-climax that has so far dogged much of the 19th World Cup.
That the North Koreans grabbed a consolation goal in their 2-1 defeat to the competition's most decorated team was just reward but, by then, Brazil's patience and a helping of star quality had already saved them from rank embarrassment. That said, and after such a narrow scoreline and despite the lateness of their goal, the Koreans had fiercely confirmed a status of being no pushovers. They are a team to fear for less confident opponents.
The icy blasts lashing through the downtown Johannesburg streets that surround Ellis Park were not the only ill wind ahead of this meeting of mighty and incognito. Outside the exclusion zone, a demonstration by stadium staff was being staged. Clothed in the familiar black jackets that surround World Cup stadia, security staff were on strike and making public their disaffection at their poor working and pay conditions. As in Cape Town the previous evening, police had been drafted in to replace them, at considerable cost to the smooth running of the operation, with delays a-plenty occurring and in some cases, there being no security to speak of at all.
Brazil, while by no means offering the pyrotechnics of previous generations, included a selection of talent familiar to billions. Meanwhile, there is no such thing as North Korea, as coach Kim had curtly told a Monday press conference, there is only the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Whatever the moniker, no-one has entered a World Cup as such an unknown quantity since their predecessors in 1966. That the third most famous ever person from their country is Pak Doo-Ik, the slayer of mighty Italy at Ayresome Park 44 years ago, also speaks volumes for the depth of the shadows that envelop their international profile. Today's generation of mystery men have three games to make a similar impact, unless of course they qualify from this edition's supposed "Group of Death". The first part of the trilogy has already won them plenty of friends.
What of their fans? Barely 100 strong, give or take the odd flag in the lower tiers, they were a magnet for photographers throughout the game. All wore the same uniform of red fleece, slacks with matching scarf and caps. At moments of excitement, they would break into a loud high-pitched scream - reminiscent of South Korea's fans in 2002. Brazilian fans for once found themselves as not the centre of attention as this rather noisy bunch waved their tiny flags and crashed together what looked like orchestral wood blocks. Perhaps the vuvuzuela has an unlikely competitor.
Group G had earlier shown signs of lifelessness during the drabness of Portugal's 0-0 draw with Ivory Coast and - the Germans aside - the pressure was on Dunga's Brazil to provide the verve and colour so far lacking from a troubled beginning to Africa's showcase. In a qualified fashion they did so, but not without admiration being heaped on their redoubtable opponents.
It took a hugely in-form player to finally break the deadlock. In Maicon the co-favourites possess many people's tip to shine in this, a new age of the attacking full back, and he continued his blistering Inter Milan form through to his national team. Just when his team looked set to be denied by a brick-wall North Korean formation that regularly employed six and sometimes even seven defenders, Maicon broke the deadlock with the type of finish that Brazilians have long lit up this competition with. It was a strike somewhat reminiscent of the wonder goal scored by fellow right-back Nelinho against Italy in 1978 - if rather closer in. A swerving slice off his right foot that he clearly meant had finally broken the resistance of a team who had acquitted themselves with such vigour and no little skill that it would be churlish to damn them with the faint praise of being patronised.
Their status is an oddity to this tournament, a great intangible from a country unpermeated by the cultures of the rest of the world, save for the satellite signal being beamed north of the 38th parallel from their southern cousins, but the North Koreans showed that they must be taken seriously. Coach Kim Jong-Hun, a permanently prowling presence on the Ellis Park sideline, has some novel ideas on the game, with that massed defence and fast-raiding attack force all sticking to their task and, on occasion, creating genuine trouble for Brazil's defence, which in itself is regarded as the five-time winners' strong point. Skipper Hong Yong-Jo possesses an impressive engine, and covered vast swathes of the pitch in receiving the ball out of defence and then supporting Jong Tae-Se, a lone striker whose hold-up play and speed showed why he is regarded as one of the very best strikers in the J-League.
Indeed, the quality of his play outshone a far greater-starred opposite number. Luis Fabiano is the latest Brazilian to be granted the fabled No. 9 shirt but he was never granted the space to emulate the likes of Careca, Romario and Ronaldo. Meanwhile, Kaka continued the subdued form of his spell so far at Real Madrid, finding it difficult to gain time and space to thread through-passes or create chances for himself. Robinho, too, until his link up for Elano's ultimately clinching goal, flitted on the periphery as Maicon and fellow full-back Michel Bastos provided Brazil's most potent threat. Nevertheless, this is a Brazilian team built in the image of its coach. Aside from the fantasista combinations of Kaka and Robinho, this team possesses brute strength to complement its creative edge. As in qualifying, getting the job done with little care for artistic impression is the approach that the former captain will live and die by in his country's most pressured position.
For now, he - and a nation always willing to give him advice - should be happy with his team's start. And offer credit to worthy opponents.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Jong Tae-Se. Leading the line when the rest of the team is engaged in defending is no mean task yet Jong provided a great respite for the toil of his defenders. Pace and skill were in evidence and one vignette saw him show his strength by holding off Lucio in a fashion very few do in the European game.
BRAZIL VERDICT: On this evidence, the samba stuff may well be kept to the stands. The key to success would seem to lie with the overlapping of Maicon and Bastos and the strength of their central defence. Should they lift their sixth trophy, they will not be joining Brazil '70 on the pantheon.
NORTH KOREA VERDICT: At half-time their fans celebrated as if they had pulled off a famous victory. Sadly, the 0-0 would not last and they did tire. Nevertheless, they will have won friends across the world.
ELLIS PARK: By comparison to Soccer City, this is an antiquated stadium yet, with the stands being closer to the pitch, it offers a far better atmosphere and far more of the trappings of authenticity. Its surrounding area however, in downtown Johannesburg, is one to avoid on a dark and lonely night.