The first of the pre-tournament co-favorites makes their debut on Tuesday, the start of Brazil's quest for a sixth world title. They enter the tournament as the top ranked team in the world and are one of only two nations to have ever won the World Cup away from their home continent. The other nation to do so, Argentina, won their second World Cup in Mexico. In addition to having won two world titles in North American (1970 in Mexico, 1994 in the United States), Brazil has won a world title on every continent on which the World Cup has been staged.
At least, they had until last Friday. Now, we have an African World Cup, and Brazil has yet to win it, though it seems unlikely that will factor into their motivation. Still, there may be something about Brazil, perhaps the Brazilian game, that exports well. They have been able to compete for World Cups far from home, and sprayed across the globe, their country's players have assimilated in all climates and cultures.
There is, however, one place Brazilians have seemingly not invaded, and that's North Korean. Willfully, North Korea has kept them and the rest of the soccer world out. In 1998 and 2002, North Korea did not even enter World Cup qualifying, and when they qualified this season, they were met by the soccer world's collective furrowed brow. A curiosity, they were thought, and in a group with three talented teams, their World Cup was destined to be short.
Their first match against Brazil is an unfair gauge against which to measure North Korea, seeing as almost any team in the world would fail to meet the challenge, but the North Koreans should still put up a bit of a fight. They will play an extremely defensive system, employing five defenders, and bunkering-in in a matter that troubled Brazil in qualifying. The Brazilians were only able to take one out of six points from Bolivia in the CONMEBOL tournament, while South Africa was able to give them trouble in last summer's Confederations Cup.
But the difference between the Bolivias and South Africas of the world and North Korea is athleticism. Bolivia and South Africa have some athletes and some soccer players, but Brazil has athletes who are soccer players, something that will work to their advantage with each set piece opportunity they force.
With North Korea sitting back and letting the Brazilians play to them, they will commit a number of fouls. Brazil is a good bet to convert a set piece or two.
North Korea will rely Jong Tae-Se for their goals, a man who has promised his country a goal per game in this tournament, but whereas the best in South America went dry against Brazil during the heart of the CONMEBOL qualifying cycle, the Kawasake Frontale man is unlikely to fulfill his promise.
Though it seems patronizing to say, this match is less about winning for North Korea, more about playing well. For the entire team, this is their first match at this level, and asking them to ascend to the to of the world over ninety minutes is unreasonable.
Then again, nobody is looking for the North Koreans. Everybody just wants a chance watch.