A winter World Cup is producing football to match the season. After Brazil's laboured 2-1 victory over North Korea in temperatures close to freezing tonight, the first 14 games of the 2010 tournament had produced a mere 23 goals between them, five fewer than the lowest total recorded at the same stage in any of the previous 18 tournaments, stretching all the way back to 1930.
A sense of disenchantment may be premature, but the global audience could certainly be forgiven for feeling that more had been expected from a tournament hyped on the effervescence of African culture and the charisma of a handful of glittering talents.
Until Maicon, making a thunderous overlap in the tradition of Carlos Alberto and Cafu, sent a shot swerving between the goalkeeper and the near post 10 minutes into the second half, Brazil had been as banal as their critics had promised. Confronted by limited but resolute opponents prepared to commit eight outfield players to defensive duties, they seemed nonplussed.
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Kaká put pass after pass astray and Robinho's dragbacks and stepovers failed to warm up the shivering crowd of 54,331 until, after 72 minutes, he delivered the ball that enabled Elano, his former Manchester City team-mate, to score the second goal with a neat sidefooted shot. But Ji Yun-nam's goal with two minutes left was no more than North Korea deserved.
Tomorrow afternoon's appearance of the extravagantly endowed Spain may bring the competition closer to the boil as the reigning European champions attempt to assert their quality against Switzerland in Durban. After witnessing six drawn matches, two of them goalless and the other four ending 1-1, and four matches decided by the only goal of the game, the world will be looking to Fernando Torres, David Villa, Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta to reignite the enthusiasm created by the gloriously flamboyant strike with which Siphiwe Tshabalala gave South Africa the lead against Mexico in the opening match last Friday.
Seldom can a prologue have carried so misleading a message. While it would be inaccurate to suggest that caution has been crippling the competition, there has been little of the extravagant flair expected from the World Cup since the day the 17-year-old Pelé flicked the ball over a Swedish defender and volleyed it home in the 1958 final. It is a rum state of affairs, some might think, when Germany carry the standard for rapturous invention, but their 4-0 win over Australia on Sunday, with performances of eye-catching precocity from the 21-year-old Mesut Ozil and the 20-year-old Thomas Müller, conveyed a welcome sense of freshness unmatched by any other side so far.
Lionel Messi flickered enticingly in Argentina's match against Nigeria, which is more than Wayne Rooney managed for England against the USA, while the sum of Cristiano Ronaldo's contribution to a goalless stalemate between Portugal and the Ivory Coast today amounted to a shot against the post and a yellow card.
Didier Drogba, another of the tournament's designated superstars, came on for the last 20 minutes of that match with his arm in a cast, but could not make the most of his only scoring opportunity in a match characterised by strenuous athleticism and frequent fouling.
A lovely solo goal by Manchester United's Park Ji-sung for South Korea against Greece on Saturday and Winston Reid's added-time equaliser for New Zealand against Slovakia today, giving his country their first-ever point in the final stages of a World Cup, provided rare grace notes. Too often it has seemed that the equalisation of fitness levels and the growing internationalisation of tactical approaches may be erasing the distinctions that can make for compelling contests.
No doubt it is too much to expect the best teams to reveal themselves in their opening games, and the flowering of the finest talents, even those of Brazil, may not occur until the second or third week of the competition. Given the degree of anticipation, however, a few more daubs of the kind of colour supplied by Tshabalala would be more than welcome, as much to those shivering in a South African winter as to those gathered around television sets across the world.
In any case, proponents of a winter World Cup have certainly got their wish. Rain in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth was followed today by a precipitous temperature drop in Johannesburg, just in time for Brazil's debut. A freezing southerly wind swept in from Antarctica via the Drakensberg mountains, and once the sun had set Ellis Park felt more like Turf Moor on a comfortless February night. Fans were blowing their vuvuzelas just to keep hypothermia at bay.
When we think of Brazil, we think of sun-dappled days in Mexico 40 years ago, of golden shirts and limbs lubricated by summer warmth. But Dunga, their current coach, has built the 2010 side for adversity, both competitive and, if necessary, climatic. All but one of last night's starting line-up play their club football in Europe, and are used to bitter winds.
Until Maicon's strike, however, which owed much to the poor positioning of Ri Myong-guk, the North Korean goalkeeper, their most notable creative contribution lay in their supporters' success in taming the unruly vuvuzela. Organising the massed ranks of blowers into antiphonal choirs, they set up call-and-response blasts to encourage their sluggish players. The world had hoped for something more, and now perhaps Spain are ready to supply it.
This is comment. GNM does not necessarily support the views expressed.