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North Korea bank on surprise element

Isolated on the global stage, North Korea travel to the World Cup in South Africa with an intriguing air of mystery swirling around the squad.

The only other time the secretive nation reached football’s showpiece was in 1966 when a team of unknowns delivered a seismic shock by defeating fancied Italy 1-0 on a memorable run to the quarter-finals.

But the 105th-ranked “Chollima” lack the same capacity to upset this time around after a gruelling qualifying campaign involving 16 matches over 20 months.

It’s a far cry from 1966 when only Australia stood in the North Koreans’ way of reaching the finals in England after the African nations withdrew, protesting the decision to allow only one qualifier from Africa, Asia and Oceania. South Korea also pulled out.

The bulk of the 2010 World Cup squad play for domestic clubs in North Korea, better known for its nuclear weapons programme and dubious rights record, but a handful ply their trade overseas.

These include striker Jong Tae-Se, who plays in Japan’s J-League along with fellow Japanese-born ethnic Korean An Yong-Hak. Striker Hong Yong-Jo is on the books of Russia’s FC Rostov.

Star players in the squad who are based at home, where FIFA says there are nearly 15,000 registered players and half a million overall, include midfielder Mun In-Guk and goalkeeper Ri Myong-Guk .

Coach Kim Jong-Hun is hoping his squad can match the exploits of the 1966 legends, even though they are locked in a tough group with five-time champions Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast.

“It was as a result of our hard work that we will return to the World Cup, 44 years after we reached the last eight at England 1966,” he said.

“I hope we can repeat the feats of our predecessors.”

Nick Bonner, associate producer of the 2002 film “The Game of Their Lives,” charting the story of the 1966 team, said North Korea were realistic about their chances.

“It’s even more of a challenge in that they’re representing a country that’s also vilified. They’re also aware of that,” said Bonner, who makes regular trips to the country with Koryo Tours, which runs tourism and cultural projects.

“Whereas any other team is of course playing for themselves and their country this has a greater importance in a way because it’s time for them to show ‘we’re here,'” he said.

He conceded that a relative lack of experience in playing teams outside North Korea would be a hindrance but the players would be tough.

North Korea, who have also reached the finals of next year’s Asian Cup, conceded just seven goals in their qualifying campaign to take one of the continent’s four automatic spots in South Africa.

Their return to football’s top table marks an upswing in their fortunes.

Football is the country’s most popular sport but Pyongyang’s leadership banned the national squad from travelling abroad after losing to arch-rivals Japan and South Korea in qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup.

They returned to international football at the Bangkok Asian Games in 1999 but did not compete in qualifying for the 1998 World Cup in France or 2002 in South Korea and Japan.

North Korea earlier this year scooped the AFC Association of the Year Award.

“The Korean association has produced a men’s national team that qualified for the FIFA World Cup finals despite having a fraction of the resources and facilities available to other economically better-off associations,” the AFC said.

“Their success at elite level is only the tip of the iceberg, with a solid grassroots structure that is producing scores of talented youngsters who are waiting for their chance at the top,” it added.

The players will be happy to arrive in South Africa with their tag of relative unknowns. But they are aiming to leave as household names.

Mon 31 May, 2010
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