FOX Soccer Exclusive
Fear of losing at World Cup dulls Day 5
Tension was the order of the day as the World Cup rolled on with a genuinely historic draw, flashes of excitement and loads of frustration.
In the day’s opener, New Zealand achieved the greatest result in its history with a 1-1 tie against Slovakia. Portugal and Cote d’Ivoire played to a scoreless draw in a tense but enthralling encounter at Port Elizabeth in which the stars were hamstrung by vigorous defense. And in the night game, North Korea delivered notice it is more than a mystery team, giving Brazil all it wanted in a 2-1 loss that knocked a little gloss off the would-be world champs.
Portugal and Cote d’Ivoire’s clash will be remembered as one of the better yet most frustrating games of this tournament to date.
In torrential rain at Nelson Mandela Bay, Cote d’Ivoire showed uncharacteristic organization under new coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, stifling Cristiano Ronaldo, Deco and Simao. Shaking off a devastating elbow injury, Didier Drogba made a stunning return to play the final 25 minutes for the Ivorians, yet aside from a few tantalizing looks at the goal, he was shackled by an unexpectedly robust Portuguese side.
Both teams displayed fortitude and a fear of losing that turned what fans hoped would be a goal-fest into a brawny, but brainy stalemate.
That should not be taken to signal this game was a bore, quite the opposite. The tension was the same one might find in a baseball no-hitter. From the hour mark on, there was a sense that a goal could come and that one would change this game. You waited for one side to blink. Neither did.
While the Ivorians probably walked away with the edge on the night, both defenses showed the tremendous bravery that signals they will be very difficult to handle. Young Benfica defender Fabio Coentrao waged an impressive battle with Guy Demel down the left flank, while Didier Zokora threw himself at everything in the middle, at one point getting a kick from Liedson for his trouble. There was no short-passing game to be had for Portugal as Cote d’Ivoire sucked all the air out, stifling Deco and Raul Meireles and forcing them to confront Gervinho on his own terms.
A key moment came 10 minutes in when Ronaldo unleashed one of his trademark and normally devastating shots from distance. Maybe it was the ball or maybe Ronaldo was off the mark, but his potentially game-changing shot thundered off the post instead of flying past Boubacar Barry into the net.
We were left to wonder: What if that had gone in?
At frigid Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium, North Korea displayed organization, fitness and very little fear, holding an initially uninterested — then panicky — Brazil team scoreless for 55 minutes.
The golden boys broke the duck behind a truly spectacular goal from Inter Milan back Maicon that may go down as the strike of the Cup. Delivered about a yard from the endline, Maicon’s shot beat keeper Ri Myong Guk inside to the near post, then curved in to flush the far net. It may have looked like a fluke, but it wasn’t, and in scoring, Maicon took a huge weight off Brazil’s shoulders.
Elano would add the second with a clinical finish off a finely weighted pass by Robinho in the 72nd, but North Korea stunned the crowd by pulling one back behind Ji Yun Nam with a minute to play.
A remarkable late flurry this morning in Rustenberg made 800-1 outsiders New Zealand heroes for a day. That the All-Whites rarely crossed the halfway line in this match will be forgotten; instead what will be remembered is the joyous and genuine celebration on the pitch after Winston Reid’s 93rd minute header and the emotional scenes on the sideline.
The New Zealanders were celebrating a 1-1 tie.
If you want to talk about truly playing for the love of the game, these guys are your example.
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Consider this: New Zealand has never won a World Cup match. It hadn’t even scored a goal in 28 years in the World Cup finals. Its best result so far in meaningful international play was a 0-0 stalemate with Iraq in last year’s Confederations Cup. Consider also that New Zealand has two players without jobs, making them effectively amateurs. One of its better players, Jeremy Christie, toils in the American second division with the NASL’s FC Tampa Bay. (The only player it has of note is the aging Ryan Nelsen, formerly of D.C. United and now with England’s Blackburn.)
This team isn’t feted at home. Even its name reflects the fact it is perpetually in the shadow of the world-famous All-Blacks rugby team. Nor can it hold a candle to the country's cricket 11. New Zealand has one professional team in the country — Wellington Phoenix — and that side actually plays in the Australian league.
So how sweet was it for this bunch that Reid, of dinky Danish side FC Midtjylland, got his head onto a 93rd minute cross by Shane Smeltz?
Now, if you’re not from Christchurch, don’t go out and order the DVD. It’s not worth much as a game, a poorly played slog that showed yet another example of the frailties of the second-tier European sides. One could argue the Slovaks didn’t even score — Robert Vittek’s first-half goal was revealed by replays to have been offside.
But as a reminder of how glorious and how human this sport can truly be? That worth cannot be measured. The All-Whites were glorious and genuine. We’re all the better for having witnessed it.
Group H finally kicks off as Honduras opens the day against Chile (7:30 a.m. EDT), followed by Spain vs. Switzerland at 10 a.m. EDT. Group A then starts its second round of games with hosts South Africa facing Uruguay in the nightcap (2:30 p.m. EDT).
Not a great day overall: Honduras and Chile should be a curiosity for American fans who are well aware of how far Los Catrachos have come. This is their best team ever, and they have to feel they do have a chance to pick up a few points. But Chile is a better side front to back and has to be considered the faves to grab the second spot in what is a comparatively weak Group H. Speaking of, Spain vs. Switzerland should be a shooting match; Spain is a favorite to win the whole shebang, while Switzerland is making up the numbers. Tune in to watch the stars (Andres Iniesta, David Villa, Fernando Torres) but don’t expect much else. Back in Group A, South Africa faces a must-win game against Uruguay if it wants to seize control of its own destiny. Uruguay defends well but cannot score; South Africa isn’t great, but is riding a high after a tough tie against Mexico. It could be a fun one.