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JOHANNESBURG -- The deserted streets of downtown Johannesburg felt doomed as the sun went down. Wind pushed down the alleys, and people wrapped in blankets and old coats huddled in packs on the corners and in takeaway shops.
It looked like the end of the world. And this afternoon, it almost felt that way here. Approaching Ellis Park, this light in the middle of an otherwise shuttered city, there was a distinct sense of foreboding. Portugal and the Ivory Coast had just struggled to yet another scoreless draw. The jackbooted police were taking over security operations. Complaints about the Jabulani, the vuvuzelas, the dust, the sudden cold snap that blew in today it seemed as though this World Cup was done for, an experiment gone terribly wrong.
Then the Brazilians came. They began arriving at the stadium just after dark by the thousands, dressed in green and yellow and beating their drums. They filled in all the empty spaces, and they shouted and jumped up and down to warm their feet, the rhythms of their pounding on the pavement echoing into the night.
But Ellis Park is an old stadium, hard-edged and cold. Some of the lights went out before Brazil and North Korea took the field, and it felt as though even Brazil could do nothing to save things.
For 45 minutes, the Brazilians played pretty soccer, with some deft touches, little shifts of their heels that made the crowd gasp. But they were kept in check by the disciplined North Koreans, this mysterious, almost militaristic team that frustrated attack after attack. Yet another scoreless half.
That halftime might have been the end of things, the cold, the wind and this World Cup's goal-scoring drought combining to push all the air out of the place. Instead, the Brazilian fans kept dancing, joined by thousands of South Africans, happy and hollering. They took photographs with their arms wrapped around each other and smiled at each other and unraveled a giant Brazilian jersey that they passed over the top of the crowd. It was as though the game hadn't hit pause. Rather than feeling as though we had reached the end -- time to give up this ghost and go home -- it felt like the beginning.
And so it was. Not long after the players returned to the field, Maicon gathered the ball down the right side, stopped within feet of the end of the field, turned and scored one of the Great Goals. It beat the North Korean keeper on the short side and curled into the far side of the net, this moment that was all we had been waiting for.
Then the Brazilians added another, a perfect pass by Robinho and a perfect finish by Elano, timed so well it seemed rehearsed to the step.
And then! Even North Korea managed to light a little fire before the final whistle, with Ji Yun Nam burying a face-saving goal that even the Brazilian fans seemed happy to concede. 2-1: the first game in this World Cup in which one team claimed victory but both teams had scored.
It was exactly the game this World Cup needed -- and afterward, as the fans poured into the streets and lit up downtown Johannesburg, everything seemed possible again. The Jabulani seemed magical, and the vuvuzelas sounded like music, and the dust danced in the spotlights. Even the cold felt right somehow, as though it had timed its arrival especially for tonight, ending everything that had come before it and marking the official start of the 2010 World Cup.
Chris Jones is a contributing editor to ESPN The Magazine and a writer-at-large for Esquire.