Jong Tae-se wept during the North Korean national anthem before his country’s 2-1 defeat against Brazil on Tuesday night, but those watching this World Cup at home could be forgiven if they had already been bored to tears.
A total of 23 goals were scored in the opening 14 games, a record low in the tournament’s history. Moreover, six of the matches so far have been drawn and two of those ended goalless. Only Germany have scored more than two goals in one match and, overall, there have been 13 goalless halves of football so far. Italia 90, the tournament often cited as the most disappointing of the modern era, since it forced FIFA to change the rules and ban the back pass, averaged 2.2 goals per game by its end but this South African instalment is currently sitting on 1.64.
It is tempting to suggest that the North Korea striker’s show of emotion was a pre-planned gesture made at the behest of that nation’s political regime, rather than a spontaneous waterworks display. Either way, Jong’s tears at Ellis Park paid homage to the significance of the occasion. The World Cup is so special to fans and players alike because it only happens every four years; only 18 have taken place before the current one and this is North Korea’s first appearance at a finals for 44 years.
Similarly, a profound sense of expectation, stemming from four long years of anticipation, has exacerbated the fans’ disappointment at the way in which the tournament has begun. Far from just wanting the football to thrill us, we assume it will.
Challenging this mindset, however, is the growing realisation that the thirty-two teams at the World Cup are loath to allow four years of preparation to be undone within the first 90 minutes. Despite the nations on show at the tournament not being the best group that the world has to offer, but rather a selection of the best from each region of the globe, there is not as much of a gap in quality between the teams as one might predict. Organisation and fitness count for so much in international football, where it is more difficult to replicate the skillful harmony of club football. As we have seen up to this point, then, when the stakes are so high and the players so well drilled, the quality of the football can suffer.
But before you start reading this article as if it was written by Mick McCarthy, a man so relentlessly downbeat on the BBC that his voice affects the brightness level of my television, remember that the World Cup remains less than a week old. By the end of Wednesday the group stage will still have just under two thirds left to run. As the players grow used to the ball some of the basic errors that have plagued the opening matches should be phased out, and as the teams get used to competing at altitude the pace of the games will certainly improve too.