On a night when the sub-zero chill seeped into every sinew, North Korea's footballers warmed the senses of most neutrals at Ellis Park by refusing to buckle to Brazil's evident superiority and class. They matched them blow for blow in the first half and, having gone two goals down, had the pluck to survive a second-half battering before earning just reward for a valiant display with a late consolation.
Even the Brazil manager Dunga, usually the most taciturn and uncompromising of coaches, felt moved to praise, saying: "They passed really well and defended extremely well – it was really hard to play against adversaries that were so tough and defensive."
North Korea signalled their intentions by lining up with five at the back, with Ri Jun-il sweeping and An Yong-hak as chief protector in a three-man central midfield. The system, as closed and stifling as the country itself, had led to 10 clean sheets in qualification, but Brazil were expected to provide a much stiffer test of its credentials.
• Follow the Guardian's World Cup team on Twitter• Sign up to play our great Fantasy Football game• Stats centre: Get the lowdown on every player• The latest team-by-team news, features and moreInitially it seemed the Koreans were wobbling. In the second minute, Robinho lollipopped down the left before nutmegging Jong Hyok-cha and passing to Kaká, who was tackled as he prepared to shoot. Elano's shot from distance flew over the bar. And shortly afterwards Robinho – looking sharper and hungrier than he has at any time in the past 18 months – cut inside before shooting wide from a central position.
But it soon became apparent this would not be the walkover that football's World Cup casuals, the folk who swallow the myth of joga bonito every four years, had assumed. The Koreans were so well organised that, by half-time, only Maicon's curling from the right shot had tested Ri Myong-guk.
Meanwhile at the other end Jong Tae-se, the striker who plays in the J-League, drives a humvee and is nicknamed "Inminui Rooney" – the People's Rooney – showed enough muscle to worry Lúcio and Juan. When the Korean anthem was played he was in floods of tears, apparently overwhelmed by emotion. But he led the line well and had the North Korean fans – all 100 or so of them – clapping excitedly when he dribbled cleverly past Maicon only to shoot high past the far post.
With Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo failing to break beyond the strikers, and Kaká struggling to find his best form, you sensed that the full-backs Maicon and Michel Bastos, along with Robinho, had to carry the attack.
Brazil sped up their passes, pushed forward with greater intent and 10 minutes into the second half, Maicon – overlapping on the right wing – finally provided the breakthrough, taking Elano's pass and, from what looked like an impossible angle on the touchline, curling a low shot into the far corner. As Maicon celebrated, the Korean keeper Ri – who had left a gap by his near post – lay prostrate in howled anguish.
Afterwards Maicon, named man of the match, admitted the jabulani ball had helped him. "The ball is very favourable to us," he said. "It's fantastic. It's a bit difficult for the goalkeepers though, that's the truth. But this is a very important victory and we want to reach our objective, which is to play in the finals on July 11."
More chances came and went. Ri unconfidently pushed at a Bastos shot from distance, Luís Fabiano blazed over after chesting down Robinho's pass, until, on 72 minutes, Robinho's pass bisected four defenders and Elano finished off his clever back-post run by slotting it across Ri.
At this stage you feared a rout. More Brazil chances came and went with the North Koreans rarely getting the ball into their opponents' half until, just before full-time, Ji Yun-nam turned inside two players before powerfully shooting home – much to his, and his coach's, delight.
"I was proud of my team," said the Korean coach Kim Jong-hun. "Although we were unable to win our players fought very bravely and I was very happy for them when we scored.
"In the first half our players really carried out our plan," he added. "They're usually very good at moving the ball from side to side, individual plays but we managed to fend them off."
Dunga, meanwhile, was just as satisfied despite a few critical questions from the Brazilian media. "In the first half we didn't have the necessary speed in our play, or our passes but after the break we were more offensive," he said. "I believe the first match is always very trying. There's nervousness and anxiety after training sessions. I'm not entirely happy but this emotion is not uncommon in football. Initially we were passing from side-to-side with not enough speed but in the second half we got stronger and were able to create a lot of opportunities."
There was praise, however, for Robinho. "I'm very happy with Robinho's performance," he said. "Nobody wanted Robinho when he left Manchester City, but I did. My biggest sin is that I have an elephantine memory – I remembered far back, and I didn't forget his talents."
In context of the tournament, where few teams have laid down a marker, Brazil will be happy with a win. But tougher tests lay ahead, starting with the Ivory Coast next week.
• This article was amended on 16 June 2010. The original named Kaka as the player who passed the ball to Maicon. This has now been corrected.
This is not a news report and may contain views expressed by the author which are not supported by GNM.