AL RAYYAN, Qatar — Not all World Cup matches will be a success.
For every burst of offense (see: England, France, Spain) and every underdog stunner (see: Saudi Arabia, Japan), there are games whose appeal might be more restricted to connoisseurs and purists.
Consider the opening match of Group H of the World Cup on Thursday night, where Uruguay and South Korea drew goalless in front of 41,663 fans at Education City Stadium. Teams surrounded each other in front of a cheerfully buzzing crowd, evaluating each other. But neither of them struck a decisive blow.
The fan base won’t be crushed by the result either. An early point each, with Portugal waiting for both teams in the first round, can be a great way to start a tournament.
“Neither team wants to lose points and in the end it was a very calculated match,” said Uruguay forward Edinson Cavani. “If you don’t release it in the first few minutes, it becomes a game like this: physical, tough, little space, few chances.
Uruguay favourites. He brought an experienced squad to Qatar, including Martin Caceres, Diego Godín and Luis Suárez, whose inclusions in the starting lineup each gave them appearances in four World Cups. When Edinson Cavani came on midway through the second half, he too made one of the four World Cup clubs.
The match was played to the relentless drum beat of a small but noisy group of South Korean fans, decked out in bright red, in one corner of the stadium. The Uruguayans periodically intervened from the opposite corner.
Those supporters – and all neutrals – were subjected to a cautious tactical battle, with South Korea working quickly, weaving short sequences of passes across the pitch and side-to-side, controlling possession until the second half, when they took a more defensive perspective. Uruguay, meanwhile, seemed to be content all night with slowing down play, calmly defending in a low block, seizing moments to charge the field with their fearsome stable of forwards.
The Koreans’ best chance to score in the first half came in the 34th minute, after passing the ball to Hwang Ui-jo, all alone directly in front of goal. But he skied his only shot over the bar and could only smile at his mistake.
“We are all human,” said Son Heung-min, the South Korea captain. “We all make mistakes. Ui-jo in our team is the best striker.”
Uruguay responded in the 43rd, when Godín surged high to strike a header towards goal, only to see him strike it tantalizingly into the left post.
The Uruguayans may have felt disappointed not to get more out of their star-studded squad, which includes several players making their World Cup debut, such as Darwin Núñez, who plays for Liverpool, and Frederico Valverde, who has been strong in this season for Real Madrid.
Núñez cut inside with the ball in the 81st minute and determinedly stared at goal, but drilled his curling shot wide of the right post. About eight minutes later, Valverde drilled in a shot from outside the box which crashed into the left post, leaving the entire goal shaking.
On the South Korean side, meanwhile, all eyes were on Son, who underwent surgery earlier this month to repair a bone fracture in his face that had threatened his participation in the tournament. Wearing a black protective mask, Son floated on the fringes of the action, eliciting murmurs every time he picked up the ball, but apart from a shot that deflected wide in the final moments of regulation, he was mostly unable to influence the game.