When Portugal and North Korea meet in Cape Town in Monday’s Group G duel, the world’s most publicity-hungry player will be pitted against the most private team of the tournament.
The heavily-endorsed Cristiano Ronaldo is seeking to end an international goal drought stretching back to February 2009 against the reclusive North Koreans, who showed they are no mugs in their opening 2-1 defeat to Brazil.
Portugal are also looking for their first win after playing out a disappointing 0-0 draw with the Ivory Coast.
Victory is crucial for the Portuguese, who face the tough challenge of Brazil in their final match. But they may struggle to break down the stingy North Koreans.
North Korea were not overawed by Brazil despite a 44-year absence from the World Cup. They defended well and broke with purpose.
Striker Jong Tae-Se, who plays in Japan’s J-League and has more than a hint of the Ronaldo merchandising fetish about him, looked dangerous, although his lack of pace saw him let a few chances slip away.
Although coach Carlos Queiroz has said his team will have to gamble, Portugal will have to be careful not to attack too freely and thus expose themselves at the back.
“In the second match, the teams will have to take more risks,” he noted after his side’s goalless draw with Ivory Coast. “We got a point against one of the favourites, now we have to win the next match,” Queiroz said.
Portuguese fans hope Ronaldo will finally spark into life for his country. His inability to find the back of the net in the qualifying campaign was partly to blame for Portugal having to defeat Bosnia—Herzegovina in a play-off in order to come to South Africa.
But the talented Rolando is characteristically cool about his long dry patch.
“Goals do not worry me at all,” Ronaldo said before the opening game. “Goals are like ketchup: You keep forcing it, then it all comes at once.” The Real Madrid star did come close against the Ivory Coast, cracking a fierce drive from distance against the upright.
Should Ronaldo fail to perform, Portugal can look to the midfield creativity of Deco and the nose for goal of striker Liedson.
The favourites also have to contend with the curse of Green Point stadium. The three games at Green Point so far have produced two goalless draws and a 1-1 draw.
While Portugal will be looking for their stars to shine, it is the team ethic that North Korea believes will see them through.
“Our team has a mentality similar to the German one, which is the best in the world,” Jong said.
Meanwhile, rumours that four of their players had defected appear unfounded, so North Korea can call on a full squad going into the crucial clash.
Ivory Coast take on Brazil on Sunday evening in the other Group G match.