If the critics were sharpening their knives after a succession of scrappy encounters during the start of the World
NEW ZEALAND vs. SLOVAKIA
12.30pm – Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenburg
In what has been a low scoring, and reasonably bland World Cup thus far, the fixture that pits New Zealand and Slovakia probably is not the one to help re-ignite excitement in the tournament, but try telling either set of supporters that the match is of little value at all. The All Whites, despite their modest record in international football, will be making their second appearance at a World Cup after a winless run in 1982, and their group this time around is just as fearsome as it was in Spain. They showed in the Confederations Cup last year that they are well organised at the back, marshaled by skipper Ryan Nelson, but lack any kind of goal threat as they failed to score in any of their three group games.
Slovakia have their own World Cup history but will compete under their current name for the first time having competed as part of Czechoslovakia for so many years. The spine of their team might give New Zealand some reason to be cautious with Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel, Lille’s Robert Vittek and star man Marek Hamsik ready to spearhead a solid Slovakian side.
IVORY COAST vs. PORTUGAL
3pm -Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
It would be no exaggeration to label this meeting as one of the games of the group stage, because of its importance, and its potential to thrill. With Brazil set to dominate Group G, it is a straight fight between these two exciting sides for the second spot in the last 16, but rather than the pre-match build-up surrounding the importance of the game, it has been focused on the fitness of one man, Didier Drogba.
A broken arm, picked up during a warm-up game against Japan, looked set to rule the Chelsea striker out of the tournament. Successful surgery means he is in contention to start the vital group game, but only if FIFA permit his arm cast, but with Drogba’s immense profile in Africa the governing body will be under huge pressure to allow the Ivorian to play.
All this leaves Portugal, and especially Cristiano Ronaldo, in the background somewhat, and after being usurped by Lionel Messi as the world’s best player, the Real Madrid forward has something to prove this summer. His country’s qualification for the tournament came through the play-off route, and as a result Coach Carlos Queiroz is under huge pressure to deliver. His job has been made more difficult due to a tournament-ending injury to Luis Nani, while the return of Pepe will give the Portuguese some needed steel, if indeed Drogba returns.
BRAZIL vs. NORTH KOREA
7.30pm – Ellis Park, Johannesburg
The second match of the day in the tournament’s Group of Death pits two nations together that can recall very different memories of the World Cup. Brazil have won the trophy five times, most recently in 2002, while North Korea’s single appearance in the competition dates back to 1966, where they reached the quarter-finals. The South American country has a vibrant, colourful reputation, both in sporting terms and in the make up of their vast country, which will be the venue for both the 2014 World Cup, and 2016 Olympic Games.
North Korea however, is a country devoid of outside interference. While Brazil will open its arms twice in the coming decade to sporting endeavor, Korea is unlikely to ever do the same. The mystery surrounding the team means, even with a formidable group ahead of them, no-one knows what to expect. Brazil will bring with them all of the flair of their previous victorious, but with more defensive nous this time around, and look a far more rounded outfit than they did in 2006.