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Monday, June 14, 2010
Call in sick and watch Day 5


Monday, June 14, 2:45 p.m. IHOP, Adam Clayton Powell Junior Boulevard, New York City

A single Beatles appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" transformed youth culture forever. One speech by Ronald Reagan led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. When New Zealand super-striker Shane "Smeltzy" Smeltz trots onto the too-springy turf Tuesday in the early-bird kickoff classic against Slovakia, will world soccer be forever changed? Probably not. But somehow, I have managed to persuade myself that anything is possible ahead of Day 5 of this World Cup. A day of giants, part-timers and complete unknowns. Some of the world's finest teams will take the field alongside some of the most amateurish outfits the tournament has seen since 1930, when the Argentinean captain missed a game to take his law finals, three members of the Brazilian side played while wearing berets and the Bolivian manager had to perform double duty and step in to act as referee.

So fake a sore throat, call in sick and prepare to savor these three beauties.

New Zealand versus Slovakia, 7:30 a.m. ET, Rustenburg

Welcome to the Minnow Bowl. A game considered such a scintillating prospect that much of the pregame media has focused on the referee, Jerome Damon of Cape Town, a South African cult figure known as the "Smiling Referee." New Zealand is a motley crew from a rugby-obsessed nation that is just happy to be invited to the party. Akin to a pub team, they expect to be whipping boys. Scoring a single goal will be a monumental achievement and they Kiwis will keep feeding the ball into forwards Rory Fallon and Smeltz to see if they can add to the two they grabbed in their only previous World Cup appearance in 1982 (both of which are slightly tarnished as they were scored against Scotland).

Fallon is the son of Kevin Fallon, who was one of the All Whites' assistant coaches in 1982. All that is background to this football chant you can bellow along to if the New Zealand fans can make it faintly audible above the drone of the you-know-whats:

"He's big
"He's bad
"He's better than this dad,
"Rory Fallon, Rory Fallon"

New Zealand's tournament game plan is to hope its opponents woefully underestimate it. Oddly, the Kiwis may wish they could open their campaign against a tougher foe, one more likely to look past them, as Slovakia is similarly inexperienced. The Fighting Jondas are a team for those who love bromance movies. After dispatching Poland and the Czech Republic to reach South Africa, disciplinarian coach Vladimir Weiss (whose son Vladimir Weiss Jr. is a tiny wonder who may figure off the bench) was overcome with emotion, channeling the ubiquitous Budweiser ad of yore as he sobbed in the locker room and told his young team he loved them. His squad has limited resources. Its collective spirit may be their greatest asset.

Youthful captain, 22-year-old Marek "The Phantom" Hamsik, may look like Green Day's drummer, but he is a highly rated midfield playmaker, so beloved at his club team, Napoli, that after having his Rolex stolen during a carjacking, the robbers realized their error and the watch was speedily returned.

Côte d'Ivoire versus Portugal, 10 a.m. ET, Port Elizabeth

Do not miss this game. The opening skirmish of the Group of Death. Two talent-soaked sides battle to see who can gain the edge in the race to proceed. The Portuguese will be led by Cristiano Ronaldo, the magnificent yet petulant thoroughbred, last seen oiled-up in a pair of the snuggest undies ever packed on the cover of Vanity Fair. Despite the presence of star names throughout the team, the Portuguese struggled in qualifying and were surprisingly constipated in attack as Ronaldo failed to register a single goal. Their reward was a place in the toughest opening game. Since arriving in South Africa they have lost Nani, their erratic winger. In his absence, Danny and Liedson, a recently naturalized Brazilian striker must step-up. Captain Ronaldo, now a global brand, has a lot to prove but appears unfazed, comparing his international goal drought to America's favorite condiment: "I'm not in the least worried about my lack of goals. They are like a bottle of ketchup. When it appears, it all comes at once."

Côte d'Ivoire was tipped by many as the African contenders most likely to threaten. Its chances diminished severely when one-man forward line Didier Drogba broke his arm in a friendly against Japan. Will he play? German legend Franz Beckenbauer played the 1970 semifinal with his injured shoulder in a sling. Drogba's participation would be similarly epic.

Even without Drogba, the Ivorian squad is loaded with talent, including Chelsea's Salomon Kalou and Yaya Toure of Barcelona, but they have demonstrated a remarkable tendency to self-destruct amidst scenes of chaos and defensive disorganization. The March appointment of Swede Sven-Göran Eriksson as coach was weird. Mild-mannered by day, a caddish lothario by night, at the last World Cup he managed England, and was less a leader of men, more a world-class seducer of women. Twice dumped from major tournaments by Portugal in the past, it remains to be seen if he is the man to harness the undoubted talent of this team and rein them in. With England, the closest he came to silverware was a second-place finish in a condom manufacturer's man of the year award.

Brazil versus North Korea, 2:30 p.m. ET, Johannesburg

Mismatch? FIFA's No. 1-ranked team (Brazil) opens its World Cup campaign against the lowest-ranked team in South Africa, North Korea (105). Brazil has won five previous World Cup tournaments. The Koreans have won a single match, but it happens to be one of the most stunning victories in World Cup history: their 1966 "Red Mosquitoes" team ran rings round the mighty Italians, shocking the world. This year's North Koreans remain unbowed. Listening to their news conferences one would think the mighty Chollima have Brazil where they want them. On the ropes.

Their star player, Jong Tae-Se, a Japanese-born striker, known as "The People's Wayne Rooney," has vowed to score a goal every game, and predicted that Brazil will be trumped. It is impossible to tell whether his team has the firepower to reinforce this creative thinking. Little is known about the squad as all but three players ply their trade in the isolated North Korean league, and even in South Africa, the team has trained in fortress-like seclusion.

Brazil may be ranked No. 1 in the world, but look elsewhere for the balletic, Cirque du Soleil-style of soccer classically associated with the team. Coach Dunga, a midfield enforcer on the triumphant 1994 side, has emphasized physical defense and a whippet-quick counter-attack. This reliance on physicality has seen the axing of flamboyant playboy Ronaldinho (last seen hawking "Rons Samba-Ronics" fitness video in Nike's lavish, ubiquitous but ill-informed ad campaign) and triggered a number of punch-ups on the training ground. Key to the system is Kaka, a global superstar determined to place a mediocre season and an ankle injury behind him, plundering defender Maicon and ruthless striker Luis Fabiano.

Two narratives are possible here: The North Koreans will either get absolutely tonked as Brazil seeks to bolster its goal difference ahead of forthcoming showdowns against the Ivorians and the Portuguese ... OR the six months of intensive training the North Koreans experienced will enable them to channel the spirit of 1966 and shock the world. My money is on the latter. Coach Kim Jong-Hun has revealed that Kim Jong-il, the supreme leader of North Korea, transmits in-game advice via mobile phones which are invisible to the naked eye -- a technology that the Dear Leader, something of an amateur Steve Jobs, apparently developed himself. Place your bets now.