With the world looking to them to improve both the entertainment value and the goals ratio of this hitherto disappointing tournament, Brazil eventually managed to achieve both requirements yesterday. On a bitterly cold Johannesburg night, reminding us that this is, after all, a winter World Cup, they took the best part of an hour to break through a red wall that might have been erected to protect the North Korean border itself, then infiltrated with two touches of the flair that some feared had been lost from their game.
Internazionale's right-back Maicon scored from a ridiculous angle and, with just under 20 minutes to play, Elano converted a fine pass from Robinho, who played throughout like the player Manchester City hoped they were signing. The first points of the competition for the world's No 1-ranked side were therefore secured, though North Korea, as old-fashioned and defensive football-wise as politically, produced an unexpected late shock with a goal from Ji Yun-nam.
The scoreline was therefore considerably closer, the Brazilian margins thinner, than would have been expected against a team ranked 104 places below them.
Their coach Dunga, the man accused of placing pragmatism above the beautiful game, seemed happy enough just to take the win and, with it, the lead in Group G. "The start is the most difficult match," he said. "The anxiety builds up. I'm satisfied with the win but I want us to score more goals."
Even in an age of instant information, the air of mystery attached to the North Koreans is as intriguing as it was when their predecessors were giving remarkable performances in England 44 years ago. For Pak Doo-ik, the hero of victory over Italy at Ayresome Park, read Jong Tae-se, a lively centre-forward, and now Ji, who will be able to tell his grandchildren he scored a goal against Brazil at the World Cup.
The sense of mystery deepened with four of their squad being listed on the team sheet last night as "absent", one of them being the striker Kim Myong-won, whom they had apparently tried to sneak in as an extra forward by describing him as the third goalkeeper. Fifa, wise to the trick, has ruled that he can therefore play only in goal, which is an unlikely eventuality. They also introduced the competition to a new formation, effectively 5-3-1-1; a disciplined back line, although the right-back Cha Jong-hyok was allowed to break down his flank occasionally, with three more men in front, leaving Jong as the one striker, with the captain Hong Yong-jo just behind him. It was not difficult to see how they had come through their qualifying group by scoring four goals in six games and conceding none at all.
A small knot of perhaps 100 Korean fans enthusiastically waved their flags and sang the national anthem (as did every team member, at least one of whom was in tears) and sat back to await the onslaught. It was not long in coming, with five attempts on Ri Myong-guk's goal in the first 20 minutes, yet the keeper held or pushed away everything hit at him, including shots from distance by both full-backs, Maicon and Michel Bastos.
Robinho was the most inventive of the Brazilians, switching from left to right and back, while demonstrating a range of feints and stepovers to make Cristiano Ronaldo jealous. Yet the red shirts massed in the penalty area, making it difficult to play through them, and defended surprisingly well at set pieces, for all their apparent physical inferiority; the goalkeeper was actually the tallest player on either side.
Gilberto Silva and the adventurous full-backs had to take care not to leave too much space behind them. On the ball the Koreans were quick and neat, and Jong ran hard and long, even if his promise to score a goal in every World Cup game was on the rash side.
It needed an exquisite Brazilian moment to warm their followers and lift the game to another level. Elano took a crossfield pass and played it outside for the rampaging Maicon, who took the ball to within a yard of the byline and then used the outside of his foot to bend it from that apparently impossible angle inside the near post. Had Ri stayed on his line, the shot could not have beaten him, but he had every right to expect a cross.
After the disappointing Fabiano shot wastefully, Elano showed his misfiring striker the way. Taking Robinho's measured pass inside the widest defender Ji, he gave Ri as little chance as he had with the first goal. It was just as well; in the last five minutes Juan had to produce a saving tackle on Jong and then Ji went past Lucio to shoot into the corner.
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Julio Cesar; Maicon, Lucio, Juan, Bastos; Gilberto Silva, Melo (Ramires, 84); Elano (Daniel, 73), Kaka (Nilmar, 78), Robinho; Fabiano.
North Korea (5-3-1-1): Ri Myong-guk; Cha Jong-hyok, Pak Choi-jin, Ri Jun-il, Ri Kwang-chon, Ji Yun-nam; Mun In-guk (Kim Kum-iI, 80), An Yong-hak, Pak Nam-chol; Hong Yong-jo; Jong Tae-se.
Referee V Kassai (Hungary).