Since qualifying for the World Cup against most people’s expectations, Kim Jong-Hun’s North Korea have been surrounded and burdened by copious amounts of rumour, myth and innuendo surrounding both their football and the politics of their homeland. Despite much of the negativity aimed at this team by the various sections of the press, the players should be given a chance to let their feet do the talking before they are judged, for this is a team which is far better than it has been given credit for thus far.
As has been widely publicised, this will be North Korea’s first appearance at a World Cup finals since 1966 (when they shocked Italy with a 1-0 win in the group to progress to the quarter-finals), an achievement which was attained after an extraordinary qualifying campaign.
Having had to start the qualification process in the first round so low was the team’s ranking, the North Koreans comfortably beat Mongolia before negotiating a third round group with three wins and three draws from their six games to finish second to their great rivals South Korea. The team’s third round success saw Jong-Hun’s side drawn in a fourth phase group yet again containing South Korea, as well as the likes of Saudi Arabia and Iran, relative giants of the Asian game. Widely expected to be the whipping boys of Group B, North Korea stunned many observers with impressive results against Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates to finish second and book their place in South Africa.
Much of this team’s success has come through an incredible collective work ethic which is founded upon a solid three-man central defence (they conceded just five goals in their final eight qualifying games) flanked by wing-backs who link to the midfield, creating what has come to be recognised as a 3-5-2 system.
Although most of the squad play their football in North Korea and have little experience of football at the highest levels, there are a handful of players with European and J-League experience, players who are relied upon to provide an added flair to what is generally a very disciplined and rigid tactical approach. Of this select band, Jong Tae-Se shines the brightest, the Kawasaki Frontale striker being dubbed the “Asian Rooney” for his pace, power and goalscoring ability (12 goals in 20 international appearances to date). Indeed, this summer’s tournament represents Jong with the chance to impress on the world stage and perhaps become a pioneer for North Korean football in one of Europe’s strongest leagues should he secure a move away from Japan after the World Cup.
Drawn together in a group with Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast, Kim Jong-Hun’s team’s chances of coming away from South Africa with anything other than three defeats are virtually non-existent. The tournament will, however, be a superb learning experience for this generation of North Korean footballers and could perhaps represent the start of a slow emergence from isolation for a country which has shut itself off from the international community since its formation over 60 years ago.
Probable starting XI: Myong-Guk (Pyongyang City); Jun-Il (Sobaeksu), Kwang-Chon (April 25), Chol-Jin (Amrokgang); Jong-Hyok (Amrokgang), Yun-Nam (April 25), In-Guk (April 25), Yong-Hak (Omiya Ardija), Yong-Jun (Pyongyang City); Yong-Jo (FC Rostov), Tae-Se (Kawasaki Frontale)
The Road to South Africa: 2nd in AFC Fourth Round qualifying Group B
World Ranking: 106th