New Zealand 1-1 Slovakia
Ivory Coast 0-0 Portugal
Brazil 2-1 North Korea
Today’s opening match started as almost all of the early matches at this Tournament have started; with a goalless first half of patient and rather boring football played in a 1/3 empty stadium. While it was clearly stated as an issue before the World Cup began, the number of empty seats for several of the matches have been a real disappointment. One of the great things about the World Cup is that, despite your assumptions about the quality of the teams playing, you just never know which pair of teams is going to breakout with a great game or a must-see moment; today’s match between Slovakia and New Zealand in front of a depleted crowd in Rustenburg provided one of the must see moments of the Tournament. Slovakia dominated the run of play, with New Zealand playing at a deliberate pace and getting bodies behind the ball. 0-0 at the half was not only a fair scoreline, but a rather appropriate condemnation of the match itself; only a blast Marek Hamsik forced a great save from New Zealand keeper Mark Paston. The rest? Forgettable. After the break, as so often happens, things opened up as Slovakia decided they should probably try to win the match; a wicked cross from Stanislav Sestak found the head of a marginally offside Robert Vittek, who got behind Kiwi defender Winston Reid and buried the ball in the near corner, putting Slovakia up 1-0. No flag, no problems; it was what the game needed. It would stay a one-sided affair for the remainder; Slovakia were finding it easy going in the midfield, with hamsik and Weiss finding space on the wings and only New Zealand’s Simon Elliot making much of an impression in his attempts to set off a counterattack or win a ball here and there. Slovakia seemed destined for the three points until, in the dying seconds, Shane Smeltz whipped in a cross from the left side of the box and found the defender Reid, who took his time and placed a perfect header in the back of the net for a 1-1 draw. A last second goal like that in the World Cup is the stuff of boyhood dreams and Reid made no mistake there either; he took his shirt off (a guaranteed yellow card) and celebrated New Zealand’s first ever point in the World Cup. Group F is all even at 1 point for all four teams; a huge result for the Kiwis and trouble for Slovakia, who next face a disciplined and powerful Paraguay on Sunday, June 20th.
Get In! Reid Earns His Nation’s First Point In The World Cup
After a short break, attention shifted to THE GROUP OF DEATH!!
If the New Zealand v Slovakia match showed how a late goal can turn a sour game into a great 1-1 draw, Group G kicked-off with a perfect example of how to play a furious 0-0. Ivory Coast and Portugal battled non-stop, with Ivory Coast having the better of the match by far, but with Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo having the best chance of the game; Ronaldo hit a long swerving drive in the 11th minute that rattled the left post, but was relatively quiet for the rest of the match, as was to be expected, given his recent performance for the Portuguese national team (he didn’t score in qualifying). In the meantime, Ivory Coast bossed the game, with Yaya Toure a ubiquitous, physical ball winning presence in the center of the midfield. Manager Sven Goran Erikson got the tactics absolutely right, flooding the midfield with bodies and pressing the ball constantly, never allowing Portugal to retain easy possession. This was the first game of the World Cup that felt like a late round match, and it essentially was; if either team had lost, they would have a lot of work ahead of them (aka beating Brazil) to get back into contention. The game felt like watching two heavyweights as they battled back and forth, no quarter given and none taken; the pace of the match, the tackles and the atmosphere was intense, and it was by far the most pulsating match of the tournament so far.
Bring It! (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
If the first half was tight and physical, the second half opened up as Portugal used the clever play of Deco to find more of the ball and release the Portuguese attack now and again. In the 66th minute, the game took a turn for the dramatic as Didier Drogba brought his broken arm and remarkable scoring record onto the pitch to a rousing applause from the crowd. Drogba battled and, in the dying minutes, found himself a couple yards from goal with the ball at his feet, but instead of shooting, screwed a pass across the gaping mouth of the goal with no one to latch onto the cross and tuck it away. 0-0 in the end was a fair result; a just scoreline for a terrific game.
Prior to the North Korea vs Brazil match, news circulated that the thousand or so North Korean supporters at the stadium were not, in fact, Korean at all: The North Korean government hired Chinese actors to come and pretend to support the team. Life under The Dear Leader sure is wacky! North Korea were an enigma coming in; not many in the West have ever seen the team play, and their players, living and plying their trade inside North Korea, are generally unknown to most fans of the game. The team’s FIFA ranking of 105th didn’t inspire confidence coming in, but their organized and determined play on the pitch was actually pretty good. This was a tale of two halves as, for seemingly the millionth time in this World Cup, the game went into halftime at 0-0, with both Brazil and North Korea controlling the ball for long spells. After the half, Brazil decided to step on it; Maicon hit a wonder goal from a position that was essentailly parallel with the goal post to make the game 1-0 before Robinho, the moody little striker who can’t seem to hold down a job anymore, slotted a perfect ball to Elano on the right wing, who one timed the ball across the goal and into the far corner, 2-0. Brazil was making it look easy until the final two minutes when North Korean winger Ji Yun Nam brought down a long pass with a deft touch, pushing him past the Brazilian defense and in on goal, where he banged the ball past a sliding Julio Cesar to make it 2-1. A few desperation shots from the North Koreans failed to make an impression, and as the final whistle blew, Brazil walked out 2-1 winners to top THE GROUP OF DEATH!!.
This Group seems to be poised on a knife’s edge with all four teams very competitive and organized and while three points today puts Brazil in the driver’s seat, they certainly look beatable; Ivory Coast vs Brazil promises to be a great match up, with both teams putting on dominant midfield displays in today’s matches. It’s way too early to guess who might make it out alive, but there is no doubt this will be a tight, tense Group from here on in.
Maicon Scores (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Up Next: Day Six