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Sports

'Group of Death' promises to deliver no shortage of curiosities

Mix the world's best footballing nation, two perennial pretenders and one absolute mystery, and what do you get? Group G. And though Brazil are favored, no one knows what the table will look like in the end.

Brazil's Maicon, right, celebrates with his teammate Lucio

Brazil face Portugal, Ivory Coast and North Korea in group G

When Ivory Coast kick off against Portugal on Tuesday afternoon, a tournament that's thus far been somewhat short of highlights will probably shift up a gear. Together with the Selecao and North Korea, those two squads comprise one of the strongest, and certainly the strangest, "group of death" in World Cup history.

There are compelling storylines galore: a former colonial power up against an ersatz colony, the top soccer nation on the planet taking on the world's most secretive country, two of the sport's top stars bidding for elusive international success, and the top team in Africa trying to measure up to the best of South America.

One thing is clear. Of Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast, at least one team will be making an early exit.

And which team that is could come down to an intriguing joker thrown into the deck, North Korea.

Worries, real or feigned

Brazilian team picture

Brazil remain the favorites

All coaches of teams that are heavily favored mouth pieties about the need to respect every opponent. But Brazil's coach Carlos Dunga does seem to be taking the Selecao's opening match against North Korea surprisingly seriously, closing several of the team's final practices to the public.

Brazil breezed through qualifying, but this is not the same sort of team fans are used to seeing from South America's largest nation. Dunga has emphasized tactical solidity over technical flash, leaving stars such as Ronaldinho out of the squad.

The Selecao still have a surfeit of talent, of course, with forward Robinho and midfield general Kaka both fit and capable of scoring the goals Brazil need.

Still, Brazil's players are sticking to the humble script.

"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," midfielder Elano told Germany's dpa news agency ahead of the match with North Korea.

And legendary former Brazil player Socrates told the BBC before the start of tournament that they were fielding a too-workmanlike squad of players with questionable fitness, and predicted the Selecao would have difficulties in the group stage.

Astonishingly, it's been the underdogs doing most of the big talking.

The Asian Wayne Rooney

South Korean player Kim Chi-woo (L) fights for the ball with North Korean player Jong Tae-se

The man on the right is considered the Asian Wayne

North Korea have only taken part in one previous World Cup, and that was back in 1966 - although they did score a shocking upset of Italy in the group stage.

But their coach Kim Jong-Hun says the outsiders do indeed have a chance in the toughest of all groups.

"In football, the best teams don't necessarily win," Kim told the AFP news agency. "We will give it our best. We know we need to win to reach the knockout phase, so no matter who we're up against, we'll target the three points."

Almost the entire squad plays its football in the domestic North Korean league. But striker Jong Tae-Se plies his trade in Japan, where he has become known as the "Asian Wayne Rooney."

"The match will be very difficult, but we can beat Brazil," Jong told dpa. "Our team has a mentality similar to the German one, which is the best in the world."

Anticipation is making him wait

Ivory Coast forward Didier Drogba holds his right arm

Drogba is working hard on his comeback

Ahead of the Ivory Coast-Portugal clash, much of the attention has focussed on two superstars.

Ivory Coast are hoping that striker Didier Drogba can recover from a fractured elbow picked up in a pre-tournament friendly. His status is touch-and-go.

But even if Les Elephants have to do without their top scorer, the players think they' ve gained enough discipline under new coach Sven-Goran Eriksson to get the results that have eluded them in the past.

"We've always had good players but have never been able to properly work together as an effective unit, defending and attacking as one," Ivory Coast defender Kolo Toure told dpa. "That's what we've been working on, and we hope that it will bear fruit, starting with our first match versus Portugal."

On the other side, Portugal hope their superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo, the 2008-09 Footballer of the Year, can end a 16-month scoreless streak in international competition.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo is keeping his head up

But CR7 wouldn't be CR7, if he lacked confidence.

"It's like a great player once told me, goals are like ketchup," Ronaldo told dpa. "You keep on forcing it, then it comes all at once."

Portugese fans better hope the ketchup starts flowing because scoring goals - lots of them - may be the key to surviving this group.

The tie-breaker

Lottery display

The group could be a lottery in the end

In a group this tight, it's entirely possible that two teams might end up level on points in second place in the final table.

According to the rules laid out by football's world governing body FIFA, goal difference is to be used to break any ties. And that would make an 8-nil thrashing of North Korea, for instance, of enormous value.

Even stranger would be the scenario if three teams ended up level on points. The goal-difference rule applies there as well, but there has considerable confusion about precisely how it, and other rules, would be applied in this unlikely but possible scenario.

If else fails, the decision will be made by flipping a coin.

That is extremely, extremely unlikely, but anything could happen in a group of death with more than its fair share of oddities.

Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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