JOHANNESBURG – A Brazil lineup bursting with global football stars will open its World Cup campaign against a North Korea squad they, and pretty much everyone else, knows very little about.
While five-time champion Brazil has won more titles than any country at football’s biggest showcase, North Korea hasn’t played in the tournament in more than 40 years and its international isolation is about its only advantage ahead of Tuesday’s match at Ellis Park.
The unpredictability surrounding the secluded Asian nation is making Brazil wary of an upset like the one the team from the reclusive communist state pulled in 1966, when it beat Italy en route to the quarter-finals in its only previous World Cup appearance.
“I don’t know anything about them,” Brazil’s Ramires said Sunday. “I only watched half of a warmup match they played. We are still waiting for the Brazilian coaches to give us more information about the them.”
That’s information which may be hard to find considering that the North Korea squad has been mostly secluded from public view and the media at a remote hotel in the northern outskirts of Johannesburg since arriving in South Africa.
“We have to respect the Koreans,” Brazil midfielder Elano said. “When we look at history, Brazil may have many more titles than they do, but once the match starts we will need to have the same respect as we would have to any other team.”
In the 1966 tournament in England, the North Korean squad defied expectations by beating Italy 1-0 to become the first team from Asia to reach the final eight. It then lost 5-3 to Portugal despite holding an early 3-0 lead.
A repeat may be difficult in South Africa after North Korea was drawn into a tough group which also contains Ivory Coast and Portugal. The opener might be the hardest test for the Koreans, as Brazil again arrives as one of the title favourites despite a team without stars such as Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Adriano.
“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.”
Brazil has a revamped squad following its disappointing 1-0 loss to France in the quarter-finals of the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Coach Dunga began a new cycle with the Brazilian national team, picking players known for their discipline and hard work and not for their stardom or past successes. He also installed a style based on solid defence and quick counterattacking, which displeased millions and millions of football-crazy fans in Brazil.
But his team earned significant results on the field to quell many of the critics and make Brazil a favourite for the title in South Africa.
With few squad changes since he took over, Dunga helped Brazil win the Confederations Cup last year and finish first in South American World Cup qualifying. Brazil also beat Italy, England, Portugal and Argentina in friendlies ahead of the World Cup.
“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.”
Robinho, Kaka and Luis Fabiano highlight the team’s attack, but another strong point this time should be the defence featuring goalkeeper Julio Cesar, Lucio, Juan and Maicon.
Kaka arrived surrounded by doubts over his physical condition following a series of injuries with Real Madrid, but he has practised normally and is set to start on Tuesday.
“Kaka is a very important part of our team,” said striker Luis Fabiano, who also recovered from a left thigh injury entering the World Cup. “We all know how good Kaka is and we need him to be playing well.”
Luis Fabiano was the Confederations Cup top scorer last year, and could be one of the top strikers again when the World Cup begins.
Brazil played only two warmup matches ahead of the World Cup, beating 110th-ranked Zimbabwe 3-0 and 108th-ranked Tanzania 5-1. North Korea — at No. 105 the lowest-ranked team at the World Cup — fell 3-1 to Nigeria but held Greece 2-2 in its warmups.
Brazil and North Korea have never faced each other before.