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After 44 years, North Korea back at the World Cup

After 44 years, North Korea back at the World Cup

As World Cup records go, it takes some beating: One appearance, one quarterfinal run and one of the biggest results in history along the way.
But 44 years later, literally nobody knows if North Korea has what it takes to emulate its 1966 feat of an upset win over Italy.
Little is known of the team and its players outside East Asia, partly because the team rarely enters the Asian Cup, sat out qualification for the 1998 and 2002 World Cups and most of its players are in action in the country's domestic league, which few outside the reclusive communist state have ever watched.
What is known, however, is that the national team advanced through a tough qualification group, is difficult to beat and consists of a tight set of players who have been together for years.
North Korea started its long road to South Africa in October 2007 with a 9-2 aggregate win over Mongolia. That gained entry into an Asian third-round group stage with South Korea, Turkmenistan and Jordan. Six games and no goals conceded gave North Korea a place in the final round and a reputation for a miserly backline.
The reward at the draw in Cape Town was a very challenging group containing Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast.
Midfielder An Yong Hak is not surprised that the team is seen as the outsiders of the group.
"It is inevitable because we have qualified for the final for the first time in 44 years and we haven't showed any good record in international tournaments since then," said An, who plays in Japan's J-League.
An will be one of three overseas-based players likely to make the plane to South Africa. He doesn't see a lack of experience in foreign leagues as a weakness for the North Koreans.
"Our teamwork compares well with any other team because we have trained together longer and with longer training days than anybody else," An said. "If others think that it will be easy to defeat North Korea, that will be good for us."
Traditional Asian football powers Iran and Saudi Arabia maybe did just that during qualification. Iran hung on for a narrow win at home but drew 0-0 in Pyongyang. North Korea shocked the Saudis with a 1-0 win in front of 80,000 cheering fans at Kim Sung Il Stadium.
Then a scoreless draw in Riyadh in June clinched the second qualification spot from the group _ behind South Korea _ and North Korea's players were given a hero's welcome when they arrived back in Pyongyang.
It was the best moment in North Korean football since the 1966 World Cup in England and was especially sweet after the disappointing attempt to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, a campaign derailed in part by bad luck and goalkeeping mistakes.
Ri Myung Guk is more reliable than his predecessor and in front of him sits a five-man defense that is well-drilled and well-organized.
Despite the packed backline, the team counterattacks with the guile of playmaker Hong Yong Jo as crucial as main striker Jong Tae Se.
Nicknamed "The People's Rooney" in South Korea, Jong, who plays his club football for top Japanese club Kawasaki Frontale, is fast, single-minded and powerful. The 25-year-old Jong wants to use the World Cup to put himself in the spotlight for scouts from the English Premier League.
"A striker should score every game. There are no easy opponents but if I can score against them then I can get a reputation as an international striker," said Jong, who was recently linked with Blackburn.
"Our target is to make it through the group stage, though I think that it is a difficult group," he added. "If we don't believe that we can win then we won't win. If we believe that we can do it, then we can."


Updated : 2021-08-05 00:18 GMT+08:00