North Korea makes Brazil sweat the victory

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North Korea makes Brazil sweat the victory

JOHANNESBURG - Five-time champions Brazil began their World Cup campaign on Tuesday with a surprisingly difficult defeat of North Korea, who summoned up some of the spirit of their astonishing 1966 run in England.

Two of the world’s most prolific marksmen - Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba - also made first appearances on day five of the tournament, but neither could find the net in Portugal’s cagey 0-0 draw with Ivory Coast.

Tuesday’s other game ended 1-1 between fellow underdogs New Zealand and Slovakia, both earning a first-ever World Cup point.

While most Africans are jubilant at the first World Cup on their continent, there was a horrific turn of events in conflict-torn Somalia where Islamic militants killed two people for breaking a ban on watching games on TV. The Hizbul Islam group also arrested 35 others.

Though the World Cup is still in its early days, fans and pundits are starting to fret about the lack of goals, and there have been few games or moments to really get the pulse racing. After 14 matches the net has bulged just 23 times, an average of 1.63 per game - well below the 2.30 average for the whole of Germany 2006 and higher figures in previous years.

As well as beating that average, Brazil and North Korea served up one of the most fascinating games of the tournament. Reviving memories of their 1966 glory run to the quarterfinals, which included a defeat of Italy, the North held the Samba Boys at bay until the second half, defying some pundits’ predictions of a massacre.

In a goal to rival South Africa’s opener as the best of the tourney so far, fullback Maicon stunningly drove the ball in from a tight angle to break the North Koreans’ resistance. A second goal from Elano seemed to signal game over, but the North Koreans scored a deserved consolation at the end.

The tournament’s lowest-ranked team were warmly cheered by a small but loyal group of official supporters from the secretive communist nation on a cold night at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium. Waving North Korean flags, clapping wooden blocks together and chanting in unison, the Koreans became the center of attention before kickoff as fans and media closed in for a better look.

North Korea are appearing in their first World Cup finals since 1966 and have been drawn against Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast in Group G.

Sitting on a worn blanket cast across the stadium’s freezing plastic seats, Kim Young-chul clapped and shouted as a cheerleader directed the group of middle-aged men.

“I came all the way from Pyongyang,” Kim said, proudly sporting his red jacket and scarf with the North’s distinctive flag emblazoned on it. “It’s a great atmosphere in here.”

Kim thought his side had a chance and would do all he could to help them against Brazil.

“If we cheer hard enough with our hearts we can win,” he added with a warm smile that revealed poor dental work. “One goal should be enough I think.”

For Portugal against Ivory Coast, Ronaldo came closest when he hit the post in Port Elizabeth with a long-range shot. Drogba came on as a substitute for Ivory Coast despite a fractured arm.

“To draw against the No. 3 team in the world, it was amazing, you have to be proud,” Drogba said.

To the surprise of many foreign visitors who had been expecting to bask in the African sun, cold temperatures and pouring rain have hit the only winter edition of the tournament since 1978, even in the tropical port of Durban.

As well as the lack of high-scoring games, empty seats have been a disappointing feature of the World Cup. World soccer’s governing body says, however, that attendance levels are the second-highest in World Cup history, behind only the United States in 1994, and blame ticket-holders who have not turned up for leaving seats empty.

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