world cup

All Hail the All Whites

Josh Dean, one of the founding editors of the late PLAY, The New York Times Sports Magazine and occasional sportswriter for Rolling Stone and Outside, will be writing every weekday for The Sports Section about the World Cup. Today, a look back at a particularly crazy Tuesday in the World Cup..

Ho-Hum … Watch out for the All-Whites!

The nice thing about getting up at 7 to watch New Zealand versus Slovakia, inarguably the least intriguing game of the first round, is that you get a lot of work done while those 22 kids bounce the ball around the pitch. I checked and answered e-mail, perused my favorite websites, read a little of the newspaper and fed, changed, and entertained my 6-week-old son, all the while keeping an eye — or at least some ears — on the game. It served the purpose that NPR usually does in my mornings: as a dull hum of pleasant background stimulation.

So numb was I to the “action” on the field that I had actually typed out the following words: “By the way, Slovakia won 1–0, though I imagine the Kiwis don’t feel so bad. They’re the worst team in the tournament, but have the world’s best rugby team. Also they have bungee jumping.” Then, of all things, New Zealand scored! In the final seconds! Of stoppage time!

There’s a reason they play those extra minutes after the clock has stopped — those mysterious minutes known only to the referee, who keeps track on a tiny watch. Exciting things happen, as those plucky Kiwis showed. The resulting tie gave New Zealand, a 400–1 long shot and the lowest seeded team in the competition, its first ever point in the World Cup, and the fact that it came off the head of a player of Maori descent (who was raised in Denmark, but who’s counting?) was especially nice. Fear the Kiwis!

The game that should have been much better.

I expected so much of Portugal versus the Ivory Coast. For one thing, goals. Both teams feature exciting offenses loaded with speed, creativity, and ball-handling prowess, and I thought going in that either of them could advance deep into the tournament. I’ll need further proof now.

The Elephants actually looked pretty good, and not just because they have the coolest jerseys in the tournament. They were organized, and skillful, and for much of the game controlled the possession. They just couldn’t finish.

Certainly the referee didn’t help. Jorge Larrionda earned himself a permanent spot on my shitlist at the 2006 World Cup, by losing control of his senses and costing the U.S. a likely victory against the eventual champions Italy. (He tossed one Italian fairly, for a nasty elbow, and then two Americans for reasons that remain unclear.) This is a man who loves to give out cards, and in the opening minutes of this match, he whipped out three — including one to Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese pretty boy who uses more body wax than Gisele. Ronaldo didn’t actually deserve that one; he was just shoving a little. He did deserve one for diving. The talented but theatrical winger collapsed dramatically on each of his first two touches. (On the third touch, he uncorked a rocket that hit the post — one of the best shots of the tournament so far and proof that this man is both great and awful to watch.) As announcer Ian Darke noted at one point, Ronaldo falls so reflexively that it wouldn’t be surprising to see him tumble over at a “puff of wind.”

By the way, did anyone else notice that while his countrymen were singing the national anthem with gusto, Ronaldo had his head bowed, and his eyes closed? He seemed to not notice that this was an emotional moment and was probably instead reflecting on a fond memory to get himself fired up. Perhaps the image of himself nude in a mirrored hot tub shaped like a Champagne glass.

Ronaldo’s shot was about the only highlight for the Portuguese, whom Ian Darke described at half as “really awful.” When they moved the ball, it was sideways or backward, leaving all the fun moments to the Elephants, who looked great until they hit the penalty box. Then they too looked bad — tentative and jittery, as if their uniforms featured those neck collars the convicts wore in The Running Man. I imagine one reason Portugal struggled is that coach Carlos Quieroz didn’t even start one of his most creative players, Simao. And why? Because he chose instead to start Danny, who is now my favorite one-named player in the tournament, just edging out Ricky, Kevin, and Shane, all of whom play for North Korea. (Not really.)

Things got exciting in the 65th minute when Didier Drogba yanked off his sweats and jogged to the check-in official. As recently as a week ago, he was feared lost for the Cup thanks to his broken arm, but the Premiership’s leading scorer was cleared to play with a plastic cast, and here he was, ready to steal the show with a dramatic late goal. He almost did it, in the 91st minute, when he found space in the box but missed badly. Oh, well. I still like the Elephants to advance.

In which the infidels are thwarted gamely by our fearless warriors. No one knew what to expect of the North Koreans, except that they would likely get stomped by Brazil. The five-time champs, on the other hand, are a favorite of everyone — except for Brazilians, that is, who are upset that the team’s coach Dunga (a former fullback) has installed a disciplined, European style that favors tactics over flair. The problem is that Brazilians take pride in not only winning, but winning in style — in the jogo bonito, samba soccer of Socrates, Pele, and Ronaldinho, whose omission from Dunga’s team speaks volumes.

Talent-wise, Brazil looked like a team that could win by ten goals — if they could solve the North Korean defense. As you might expect of a totalitarian dictatorship with one of the world’s largest standing armies, North Korea takes defense very seriously. Coach Kim Jong Hun often orders all ten of his men into their own half, and every one of his players performs the role of goal prevention as if his life depends on it. (Which it might, come to think of it.)

One “report” floating around about the Koreans is that the Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il has a secret two-way radio system enabling him to relay tactical advice to his hand-selected coach. (Sample intercepted message: “We do not have enough men protecting the homeland’s goal!” “But, sir, we are only allowed eleven.” “I don’t care — I want to use all three substitutions in addition to my starting eleven. And let’s replace that penalty spot with a claymore!”) The other rumor is that Chinese actors were hired to play the part of loyal fans, and if that’s true, they played the part convincingly. (Why not just use real North Koreans? They’re not allowed to travel. Or, according to announcer Martin Tyler, own refrigerators. Could that possibly be true?) A small cluster of DPRK “fans” were dressed, to a man, in matching red jackets and caps, and waved two flags apiece for the entirety of the game, but especially after their “team” scored a goal late in the game.

Yes, it’s true. North Korea scored on Brazil. Not until the Brazilians had scored twice — taking 24 shots to do so — but defender Ji Yun-Nam did score what I have to say is one of the nicer goals of the tournament. He took a headed pass, made a deft touch, evaded two defenders and sprinted into the box, where he shot over a diving Julio Cesar, one of the world’s best keepers.

So there you have it, Brazil wins 2–1 and leads the Group of Death — unless you live in Pyongyang, in which case you will wake to glorious news that the DPRK has felled mighty Brazil 1–10. And here is a ten-second highlight as proof.

All Hail the All Whites