It was billed as the largest mismatch in World Cup history, but by the final whistle top-ranked Brazil found themselves hanging on to a slim 2-1 win over the resilient Korea DPR.
North Korea, ranked 105 in the world, put on a magical defensive display, holding the mighty Brazilians scoreless through the first 55 minutes before Maicon finally broke the spell.
Elano’s strike in the 71st minute gave Brazil a comfortable 2-0 cushion but a late charge by North Korea did the improbable—a goal against Brazil, and in the dying minutes of play.
Brazil managed to avoid any more embarrassment and held on for the win, but the point was made: North Korea is here to compete in the “Group of Death.”
The Koreans sent the message early they were not going to be blown out, actually putting the pressure on Brazil early, controlling the tempo of the game and even generating the first shot on goal.
Jong Tae-se—nicknamed “The People’s Wayne Rooney”—beat out two defenders with the ball and whistled a shot at the net that Brazilian keeper Julio Cesar had to be sharp on.
From there, Brazil came on more and more offensively and would eventually control the match. They dominated possession for the majority of the game, generating several scoring opportunities, but the Korean defence—the country’s greatest strength—blocked many shots and passes in the 18 yard box, frustrating the South American nation.
It became apparent that it would take something special for Brazil to crack the solid Korean fullbacks, and Maicon did just that.
Chasing a ball in tight down the right side of the net, Maicon turned his head as if to cross the ball into the middle, where three of his teammates had position.
The head fake tricked Korean keeper Ri Myong Guk as Maicon instead fired an extremely sharp-angled shot that rocketed past the near post and into the far side net for the 1-0 lead.
Brazil became more aggressive offensively and was rewarded 16 minutes later. Robinho threaded a beautiful pass through four defenders from 25 yards out, catching a streaking Elano who met the ball in front of the goal.
With a defender catching up to him and Ri rushing to block the open space, Elano one-timed a perfectly placed shot with the side of his foot, finding the far corner and setting up what looked like an easy finish to the match.
North Korea had other ideas. In the 89th minute, 33 year-old Ji Yun-nam received a header 15 yards out from his teammate, outraced two defenders to go one-on-one against Cesar down-low, and unloaded with a shot that sailed over the diving Brazilian goal keep for the surprising score.
Coming into the tournament, North Korea was looked at as the heavy underdog in a group that features not only Brazil, but the strong teams of Portugal and Ivory Coast.
They will still be looked at as the least favoured to advance in Group G, though a draw between Ivory Coast and Portugal earlier in the day puts North Korea in the hunt for at least second spot.
Meanwhile Brazil is now in control, leading the charge with three points.