First game a matter of life and death

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo watches teammate Ricardo Costa head a ball during a training session...

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo watches teammate Ricardo Costa head a ball during a training session in Magaliesburg Sunday, June 13, 2010. (REUTERS/Jose Manuel Ribeiro)

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:36 PM ET

CAPE TOWN -- The Group of Death opens with a Game of Life.

Portugal and the Ivory Coast play Tuesday in Port Elizabeth.

With Brazil lurking in that group as well, chances are the winner of this game will move on to the next round.

How's that for pressure right off the start?

The Ivory Coast has always been touted as the African nation most likely to succeed.

Then during a friendly, Didier Drogba, one of the planets' top strikers broke his arm and with it broke the dreams of the Ivory Coast.

Portugal comes to this World Cup with the same issues as Italy and France. No one is quite sure what it is going to bring to the table.

The Portuguese barely qualified for this tournament and have shown little since their playoff win.

Portugal was hurt last week when Nani went down with an injury to his collarbone.

So now everyone waits.

They wait to see if Drogba can make a Lourdes-like recovery and play in the opener.

They wait to see if Portugal is in the mood to play or if it will merely give the ball to Ronaldo and expect him to do it all.

It is a mouth-watering group match not only because there is so much potential talent on display but also because so much is at stake.

Beside the game being key to advancing, the winner will retain the opportunity to top the group. That means they can avoid an eventual meeting with Spain.

Is Ronaldo ready? Who knows?

There have been rumours he doesn't get along with teammate Simao. That has been pooh-poohed by both players.

Ronaldo claims vuvuzelas are giving him s trouble.

"It is difficult for anyone on the pitch to concentrate," he said.

He must be joking. Doesn't he have anything better to do than listen to horns blowing.

Ronaldo hasn't scored for Portugal for 16 months but he says he's ready to "erupt."

"The goals will come. They'll come naturally," Ronaldo said. "It's like a great player once told me, goals are like ketchup . . . you keep on forcing it, then it comes all at once."

Cute but the Portuguese would be a lot happier if he did a lot less talking and a little more squeezing because Portugal goes the way Ronald goes.

Unfortunately when it comes to international play, Ronaldo hasn't gone very well.

He's been more hot dog than ketchup.

This World Cup will give everyone a pretty good idea if Ronaldo has matured, if he's come to understand that indeed he does need to carry the team but he isn't the team.

It's a heavy burden but the best players respond to that challenge.

When they realized they are as good as they can be with their feet, they learn how to get better emotionally.

If Ronaldo performs as he did in the 2008 European championship in a distracted, emotional way, Portugal will be going nowhere because no Ronaldo, no wins.

The Ivory Coast though, can be dangerous even without Didier Drogba.

Defender Kolo Toure says the Elephants will be successful because of manager Sven-Goran Eriksson despite his checkered coaching history.

"We have so many players playing in the best leagues, but when we come to our national team, we don't do things in the right way," Toure said. "He has helped us a lot . . . tries to work our head, like talking to the players, we have a lot of meetings and try to bring all the players together and to bring this team spirit."

It wouldn't hurt Portugal to take on a little of that advice.

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NETHERLANDS vs. DENMARK

Soccer City, Johannesburg

Monday, 7:30 a.m. EST

ALL-TIME SERIES: Netherlands have 11 victories, six losses, 10 draws.

FREE KICKS: The Dutch always seem to come out of the gates fast in these tournaments, only to experience a devastating hiccup further down the road. Unfortunately for Denmark, it’s early in the tourney.

OF NOTE: The Netherlands have not gotten past the second round in 12 years.

JAPAN vs. CAMEROON

Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein

Monday, 10 a.m. EST

ALL-TIME SERIES: Japan has won both previous meetings

FREE KICKS: Star striker Samuel Eto’o is one of the best players to come from the African continent and you can bet he wants nothing more than to lead Cameroon to the promised land. He has been voted African Player of the Year three times.

OF NOTE: Cameroon won its final four qualifier matches to earn a spot in South Africa.

ITALY vs. PARAGUAY

Greenpoint Stadium, Cape Town

Monday, 2:30 p.m. EST

ALL-TIME SERIES: Teams have split their two previous meetings, both winning once.

FREE KICKS: Why so many people are overlooking the Italians is puzzling. Yes, they are old. But they also have one of the best goaltenders in the world in Gianluigi Buffon, who conceded only two goals en route to winning the World Cup in 2006.

OF NOTE: Italy's Marcello Lippi is the only man to coach teams to a Champions League title and a World Cup.


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