AL-RAYAN, Qatar – Not every World Cup will be a hit.
For every explosion of crime (see: England, France, Spain) and every stunning underdog (see: Saudi Arabia, Japan), there are games whose appeal may be more restricted to the experts and specialists.
Consider the World Cup Group H opener on Thursday night, where Uruguay and South Korea were held 0-0 in front of 41,663 fans at Education City Stadium. The teams circled each other in front of a happily crowded crowd, measuring each other. But neither of them dealt a decisive blow.
Neither fan base will be crushed by the result either. One point in the opening game, with Portugal waiting for both teams later in the first round, could be a good way to start the tournament.
“Neither team wants to drop points and it was a very calculated game in the end,” said Uruguay striker Edinson Cavani. “If you don’t release it in the first few minutes, it becomes such a game: physical, hard, small space, slim chances.
Uruguay was preferred. It has brought an experienced team to Qatar, including Martin Caceres, Diego Godin and Luis Suarez, who have started each of them in four World Cups. When Edinson Cavani came on midway through the second half, he also joined the four World Cup clubs.
The match was played to the incessant drumming of a small but loud group of South Korean fans, decked out in bright red, in one corner of the stadium. And the Uruguayans were periodically chiming in from the opposite corner.
These fans – and any neutral player – were put through a timid tactical battle, as South Korea worked quickly, weaving strings of short passes up and down the field, and dominated possession until the second half, when they assumed a more defensive point of view. Meanwhile, Uruguay seemed content all night to slow the game down, defend calmly in a low block, and choose moments to ignite the pitch with their fearsome stable of forwards.
The Koreans’ best scoring chance of the first half came in the 34th minute, after they sent the ball to Hwang Ui-ju, all alone in front of the goal. But he missed his shot once over the bar and only smiled at his mistake.
“We are all human,” said Son Heung-min, South Korea’s captain. “We all make mistakes. Ui-jo, from our team, is the best striker.”
Uruguay responded in the 43rd minute, when Godín rose high to head a shot towards the goal, only to see it explode spectacularly off the left post.
Uruguay may have been disappointed not to get more out of their star-studded squad, which includes several players who made their World Cup debuts, such as Darwin Nunez, who plays for Liverpool, and Federico Valverde, who has been sharp this season with Real Madrid.
Núñez cut inside with the ball in the 81st minute and appeared sternly on goal, but he fired his curling shot wide of the right post. About eight minutes later, Valverde’s shot from outside the penalty area hit the left post, leaving the goal fully shaken.
Meanwhile, on the South Korean side, all eyes are on Son, who had surgery earlier this month to repair a broken bone in his face that had threatened his participation in the tournament. Wearing a protective black mask, Son circled the perimeter of the action, drawing a hum whenever he caught the ball, but, other than a shot that deflected wide in his fatal moments of setting, he mostly failed to impress play.
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