World Cup: Finally, Brazil takes the field
Whenever Brazil sambas into a tournament, heads turn, even if it no longer truly plays the beautiful game of Pele and other great Brazilian teams.
The highly anticipated debut of the five-time World Cup champions comes Tuesday night when they play North Korea in Johannesburg. Ranked No. 1 by FIFA, the Brazilians should have little trouble with North Korea, which is ranked 105th, lowest in the tournament.
Still, the unpredictability surrounding the reclusive communist nation is making Brazil wary of an upset like the one North Korea pulled in 1966, when it beat Italy en route to the quarterfinals in its only previous World Cup appearance.
“I don’t know anything about them,” Brazil’s Ramires said. “I only watched half of a warmup match they played.”
Coach Dunga has turned Brazil into a more defense-minded team, a style that helped it win the 1994 title when he was captain. Defenders Lucio and Maicon are among the world’s best, as is goalkeeper Julio Cesar, who missed some training because of a back injury.
That emphasis on defense doesn’t mean playmaker Kaka and attackers Luis Fabiano and Robinho will be shackled.
“The team is ready,” Robinho said. “The team has been ready for a long time. We are prepared to do well in this World Cup.”
Kaka has recovered from a series of injuries.
“Kaka is a very important part of our team,” said Luis Fabiano, who is working through a left thigh injury that bothered him coming to South Africa. “We all know how good Kaka is and we need him to be playing well.”
The North Koreans know how good all of the Brazilians can be.
“We know that all the players on the team are famous and that Brazil is the strongest team in the world,” North Korea midfielder An Yong Hak said. “Doesn’t seem like they have any weaknesses.”
Elsewhere, Portugal plays Ivory Coast at Port Elizabeth, and New Zealand takes on Slovakia at Rustenburg.
Portugal, with three players born in Brazil – defender Pepe, midfielder Deco and striker Liedson – has moved up to third in the world. It finished fourth at the last World Cup and,in striker Cristiano Ronaldo, has the 2008 world player of the year.
But he hasn’t scored for Portugal for 16 months, and a continued drought could cause huge problems for his team.
“The goals will come. They’ll come naturally,” Ronaldo said. “It’s like a great player once told me: Goals are like ketchup … you keep on forcing it, then it comes all at once.”
Ivory Coast likely will be missing its star and leader, Didier Drogba, who broke his right arm in a friendly against Japan. No player is more meaningful to his team in this World Cup.
Midfielder Didier Zokora said Drogba, who trained with the team for two days late last week but wore a protective cast as he worked on his ball skills and fitness, remained in good spirits.
“Even if he’s not playing with us every time, he’s the captain and he leads the team very, very well,” Zokora said.
Slovakia is in its first international tournament as an independent nation since the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993. It won its qualifying group over the Czech Republic.
Slovakia is without 33-year-old midfielder Miroslav Karhan, its most experienced player, who’s out with an Achilles’ tendon injury. Strikers Filip Holosko and Robert Vittek are also recovering from injuries. Midfielder Juraj Kucka, who didn’t play in qualifying but scored in Slovakia’s 1-1 draw against Cameroon last month, might start.
New Zealand is returning to the World Cup for the first time since its debut in 1982. Captain and central defender Ryan Nelsen, who plays for Blackburn, says the performances his team delivered in warmup games demonstrated it has the talent to test World Cup opponents.
“We’ve proved over the last four, five games we can be competitive,” Nelsen said, noting a recent 1-0 win over No. 15 Serbia. “We’re a very good football team. It’s as simple as that.”