Although Korea DPR – the national team of North Korea – may look set to be the whipping boys in South Africa, their tenacious team ethic suggests that the giants of Group G will be made to work much harder for their points than many would expect.
Football is certainly the sport of choice for the majority of North Koreans, as, according to FIFA statistics, 500 000 of the 24m population play football regularly, and 15 000 are registered players. Two top-tier league championships take place each year – The Technical Innovation Contests between February and June and The Republic Championship from September to the end of October. Owing to the nation’s communist ideology, none of the teams are fully professional and the Football Association refuses to follow FIFA transfer rules. These unorthodox rulings make them ineligible for the AFC President’s Cup – the Asian equivalent of the Champions League. Of the national team players, 95% participate in the domestic league, while half the current national squad have played for the leading team, 4.25 Sports Group (April 25), since they were teenagers. In sum, North Korean football is a passionate but intensely internal affair.
The Koreans had been off the international footballing radar for over 10 years – the ruling elite were so shamed by losses to Japan and Korea Republic in1994 that they refused to participate in qualifying for the following two World Cups. Before South Africa, North Korea’s only World Cup finals appearance came in 1966, when they famously defeated Italy and led Portugal 3-0 in their quarter-final before going down 5-3. After three rounds of qualification for World Cup 2010, a 0-0 draw away to Saudi Arabia secured them an historic passage to South Africa. Notably, they went undefeated at home in front of capacity crowds of 48 000 spectators at the Kim Il Sung Stadium, in the capital of Pyongyang – a high-pressure atmosphere that will stand the players in good stead for the World Cup group games.
One of North Korea’s greatest vulnerabilities is perhaps the Coach, Kim Jong-Hun. Former players from the ’66 era and local media have pointed out that Kim’s over-reliance on a stubborn defence will invite merciless waves of attacking pressure, but the Coach himself disagrees: “We will defend well, play on the counter-attack with fast breaks forward, and give it our best shot at the World Cup. We may not be the favourites, but neither was our team in 1966.” The apparent lack of attacking mentality was illustrated by the scoring of just seven goals in their last eight qualifying matches. Despite threats to his position at the end of 2009, when both Sven Goran Eriksson and Guus Hiddink were sounded out, Kim will definitely lead the unfancied Asians when the World Cup kicks off this June.
In a squad full of relative unknowns, striker Hong Yong-Jo is the most notable star name. He is the only North Korean to ply his trade in Europe and was their leading scorer in World Cup qualification. Playing for FC Rostow in the Russian Premier League, Hong will hope to impart all his experience of top-flight European football on to his teammates. Team captain and penalty-taker, he is North Korea’s talisman and his performances in South Africa will be pivotal to their campaign. The side’s style of play is simple but effective – a largely defensive 4-5-1 formation that harnesses their unquenchable team ethic. Their willingness to absorb pressure for large spells and punish on the counter-attack – utilising their incredible stamina – is their signature style. According to journalist Taewoon Park, this style is a result of their training: “They train like a typical military troop. As a result, their teamwork is really good and their stamina is probably the best in the world.”
Given their limited World Cup experience and their place in the ‘Group of Death’, the North Korean team will likely be scraping around for single points as opposed to setting their sights on the knockout stages. On the flip-side, the pressure to punch above their weight has been piled on by the national government, as games will not be shown live on television and recorded highlights will only be shown if North Korea win a game. It’s a big ask for the Koreans, who are the lowest ranked country to qualify for this summer’s finals. They sit 106th in the latest list so navigating a route past, Brazil, ranked 1st, Portugal, 3rd and Ivory Coast, 27th, represents an almost impossible task.