Saturday, May 15, 2010

32 For 2010: North Korea

Football just ain’t fair sometimes. When you’ve waited 44 years to qualify for only your second World Cup like North Korea have, the last thing you’d want is to be drawn in the same group as Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast.

That, however, is as good a reason why the East Asians are 1,000-1 to win the 2010 World Cup. Football observers with a glass-half-full temperament are quick to point out that these odds might be a little unfair given North Korea’s heroics during the 1966 World Cup. Back then, not even Chile or Italy could topple them in the first round and were 3-0 up in their quarter final before Eusebio almost single-handedly sent them packing.

The 2010 competition could be one of limited joy for Kim Jong-hun and his team, yet you feel they deserve to acheive something of tokenistic value in South Africa next month. Their qualification campaign has been a lengthy one, starting as it did with a two-leg tie against Mongolia in October 2007, and saw them playing their neighbours south of the border four times over two rounds. The fact that they got through from first round to last with more than enough points in the bank and only one defeat to South Korea shows what a battling outfit they are these days.

Their success in qualifying has been based squarely on their staunchly defensive tactics. Several teams including Jordan, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and South Korea all failed to score against the North Koreans, but one can’t help but feel the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Fabiano and Didier Drogba will have altogether better luck when the Communist state arrives for its first match in Johannesburg on June 15th.

Of the players in their squad, few play outside the country’s borders although one that does, Jong Tae-se of Kawasaki Frontale, has carved out a reputation as one of the best strikers in the J-League – ‘the Asian Wayne Rooney’, as he’s already been labelled. Another striker, Hong Yong-jo, is proving similarly successful with FK Rostov in Russia, and between them they’ll need to be at their most prolific if they’re to get North Korea to the knockout stages of the 2010 World Cup. If they’re not, the role of goalkeeper Ri Myong-guk and sweeper Ri Jun-il will take on even more significance.

One matter may prove decisive above player selection, however, and that’s the man selecting the players. Coach Kim Jong-hun has done a great job in getting South Korea’s oft-forgotten rivals back into the world football spotlight again, but many are wondering if he’ll soon be shown the door in favour of a foreigner with more experience. Such an act would surely be futile as anyone looking to reprogram DPRK’s fiercely defensive unit at this late stage would have a tough job on their hands. There again, Bora Milutinovic is currently out of contract so anything’s possible.

It’s almost clichéd to suggest North Korea will be looking to reach the second round this summer, but to be brutally honest a draw against Portugal or Ivory Coast in Group G will go down as something realistically worthwhile of note. As for Jong-hun’s preposterous claim that they’re aiming to reach the last eight, we’ll politely draw a veil over that.

The irony of all this is that most of North Korea’s 23 million population probably won’t see its team’s travails next month. SBS, the South Korean TV broadcaster, was planning to allow North Korea access to its pictures throughout the competition but the torpedoing of a South Korean warship by North Korea in March (leading to the death of 46 sailors) has prompted SBS to pull the plug.

A pity, that, for this will be a rare chance to see the chollima on the biggest stage in world football and no-one can say for certain when the next one will come along. The search for another Pak Doo Ik continues.

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