Comment: Italy Beware! North Korea Aiming For 2010 World Cup

1966 was the one and only time that North Korea has appeared at the World Cup. A 1-0 win over Italy is still one of the biggest shocks in football history.
It was a first ever win by an Asian team and it was not a bad way to start. Pak Do-ik (nicknamed the The Yellow Pearl in the PC-less days of the sixties) scored the only goal at Middlesbrough to send the Koreans to the last eight to face Portugal and the Italians back home to face a barrage of tomatoes.

Despite leading 3-0 against Portugal in Liverpool, Eusebio, the Black Pearl, ran riot and Portugal ran out 5-3 winners. Nevertheless, it was a debut that has never been forgotten.

The next few months will determine if the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea will return to the global stage in South Africa.

After three games of the final round of qualification, North Korea has collected four points – a solid rather than spectacular return. The first match brought a slick away 2-1 win in UAE where the visitors produced an impressive display of counter-attacking football. The second was a 1-1 draw against South Korea and the third was a 2-1 defeat in Tehran. 

On the face of it, it is a reasonable start to the group. DPRK are just three points behind the leaders South Korea and, only a point behind Iran in second, a place that will guarantee passage to South Africa. If the Reds win their three home games to come in Pyongyang, they won’t be far away.  

The situation could have been better though. In the Korean Derby in September, the draw should have been a win. The 1966 conquerors of Italy looked consistently more dangerous than the 2002 Azzuri eliminators. In the end, a goalkeeping mistake gave the southerners an unlikely point. 

A defeat in Tehran is never something to be ashamed of but Ali Daei was not being polite when he said that the match was his hardest since being appointed as Iran’s national team coach. Iran took a two-goal lead but were mightily relieved to take the three points. In the second half, the North switched from their preferred defensive formation to an attacking one with impressive ease and the fact that Iranian goalkeeper Medhi Rahmati was the man of the match, tells its own story. 

The North Koreans could easily be sitting top of the group with seven points. It was not to be but still, the team is not badly positioned going into 2009.

A home game against Saudi Arabia in Pyongyang is vital.The timing could be perfect for the hosts. Few qualifiers around the world will be played in colder temperatures. The only question is, how many degrees below zero will the mercury fall? The deeper it drops the better for the hosts. Having to play in temperatures that could be around minus (ten even in the middle of the day) and in front of 100,000 partisan fans would be tough for any team – not least for the Sons of the Desert. Three points from that game and the DPRK will be in a strong position.

The defence is the foundation and is famed throughout Asia after not conceding a single goal during six games in the third round of qualification. It has been a little more porous since and suspicions are growing that the team’s goalkeeping problems have not been solved. A lack of competent shotstopping in qualification for the 2006 World Cup stopped the campaign in its tracks. Ri Myung-guk won’t be the only one hoping that his form improves in the second half of the campaign. 

With the team’s counter-attacking style, it is vital that the strikers take what chances come their way. After starting 2008 and the East Asian championships in blistering form, Jung Tae-se struggled to hit the same heights for the national team. But the ‘People’s Rooney’ finished the J-League season in fine form and his goals helped Kawasaki Frontale finish second in Japan. He is still learning how to deal with the extra attention that his new found fame has brought him on and off the pitch but at least it takes the pressure off others.  

Hong Yong-jo is adept at coming from deep to making use of that space. Hong, who plays his club football in Russia, is, perhaps, the Kenny Dalglish to Jung’s Ian Rush and his set piece skills are another asset. With the under-rated An Yong-hak patrolling the middle, North Korea use the ball well and have team spirit coming out of their ears. 

It could go to the wire. Coach Kim Jung-hoon is a man of few words in public but is well-respected by the players. He is not displeased that his team is still seen as rank outsiders. That rank is, according to FIFA, 112. Teams that pay more attention to that number rather than the evidence on the pitch often come a cropper. North Korea’s relative lack of games on the international stage means that the points to climb the rankings are hard to come by.  

Whether they can get the points they need for South Africa remains to be seen but it would not be as big a shock as some may think.    

And if both Koreas make it, perhaps Italy should watch out...   

John Duerden

Asia Editor