And they said romance was dead. There I was thinking that the World Cup was descending into a downward spiral of tactical stalemates and overhyped, preening prima donnas and who should emerge as the refreshing alternative to Sven’s suffocation of African vibrancy and Ronaldo’s pratfalls but the representatives of the Democratic Republic of Korea.
Oh how we mocked their insularity! Andy Townsend could barely contain his giggles before tonight’s match with Brazil. “I hear they went to the zoo yesterday,” he gurgled before mockingly revealing that the squad had taken their first trip to a supermarket today. Where we’ve elevated to Paul Gascoigne to ‘national treasure’ status for his Italia ’90 outletting of emotion, Clive Tydsley took great pleasure in smirkingly scrutinising Jong Tae-Se’s spontaneous tears of patriotic fervour during the national anthems. “It’s FA Cup third round day,” he proclaimed referring to the supposed gulf in class between the two opponents.
And then the match kicked off. And finally we were treated to a match which encapsulates why so many people hail this tournament as the greatest show on earth. Much is made of Brazil’s magical history; we’re constantly drawn towards the audaciousness of the teams of 1970 and 1982. So much so that those images of rolled down socks and incomparable bends and swerves of a ball have been branded into the collective psyche of subsequent generations. Granted, they were truly magnificent but since then, just how good have Brazil been? Do Brazilians hail the victories of 1994 and 2002 in the same way as that feted group of players who took the game to new heights of technical brilliance with their originality and creativity in the Azteca stadium 40 years ago? In many respects, the last two triumphs were achieved using the templates outlined by Europe’s greatest tacticians and as a result, Brazil are cursed forever more to chase the shadow of ghosts fast receding into distant memory. Tonight’s performance did little to dispel this assumption despite what the salivations of pundits and commentators may tell us to think.
The North Korean players however, did more for the public perception of their country over the course of 90 heartfelt and committed minutes than any number of rickety snapshots of obscenely happy children twirling canes and doing somersaults in honour of the Dear Leader ever could. Isolated from the media glare, their football revealed itself to be unfettered by the ugly remonstrations we have all become accustomed to when the modern player is tackled with any kind of forceful contact. When knocked down, they just got back up. No complaints, no gesticulations, no dramatics. And then there was the tempo and technical competance of their play. Introducing us all to the ‘Pentagon’ formation, they were perfectly in formation for the most part; often first to the ball and always supremely aware of their colleagues’ jobs on the field. And they smiled. Oh, how they smiled. Who could honestly not take delight in seeing Dunga’s furrowed brow sweating as his pragmatic equivalent of tactical detente was so expertly foiled by a team who were expected to turn up, get thumped and have cynical jokes about their imminent banishment to re-education camps made at their expense? And then there was that goal! Despite the result never being in doubt once Robinho sliced the North Korean defence in half for Elano’s goal and the Koreans’ obvious lack of full match fitness became evident, the release of joy was tangible as Ji Yun-Nam’s shot nestled into the back of the net; apt reward for an equally piercing passage of play. Who thought communism could be this much fun?
Although the severity of North Korea’s international isolationism cannot be ignored nor belittled, what the country’s players showed the watching world tonight was a glimpse of a nation that despite its secrecy and paranoia is no more averse to romanticism and joie de vivre than any other culture, creed or ism. They’re not the robotic automatons we’re all led to believe they are. What they are, are very good footballers. Didier and Cristiano, you have been warned.
The World Cup has finally begun.
Group F: New Zealand 1 – Slovakia 1
Group G: Ivory Coast 0 – Portugal 0
Brazil 2 – North Korea 1