Isolated on the global stage, North Korea will pit their wits against football’s heavyweights at next year’s World Cup after qualifying for only the second time in their history.
The North, whose only previous World Cup appearance was in 1966, secured their place in the finals with a typically dour 0-0 draw away at Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, joining neighbours and sworn enemies South Korea in South Africa.
Their qualification comes against the backdrop of grave international concern about the intentions of the North and its reclusive leader Kim Jong-Il after Pyongyang test-fired several rockets and tested a nuclear bomb.
Even their campaign to reach football’s four-yearly showpiece was not free from intrigue and controversy.
Earlier this year North Korea said its players had been poisoned ahead of a 1-0 defeat in Seoul, allegations that South Korean football officials branded as “groundless” and “far-fetched.”
The North, in a statement, also pointed the finger at the Omani referee.
“The match… turned into a theatre of plot-breeding and swindling,” the statement said.
In their only previous World Cup, in England 43 years ago, the North became many people’s second team as they beat the mighty Italy on the way to the quarter-finals, where they went out to a Eusebio-inspired Portugal, 5-3.
But in the current diplomatic climate, coupled with their brand of defensive counter-attacking football, they are unlikely to be so popular or entertaining this time around.
The draw against Saudi Arabia that sealed qualification was typical of North Korea’s campaign, which will see them competing against football’s elite despite a lowly world ranking of 106 — on a par with Moldova.
They scored only seven goals in eight games in the final qualification stage, conceding just five, while in the preceding group stages their resolute defence was not breached once in six games.
“It was so hot in Saudi Arabia and as you know the journey from Korea was long, but our belief in the ability of the players snatched the ticket to South Africa,” coach Kim Jong-Hun said after the game.
“We focused on defending as we had come under a lot of pressure from the Saudis and I think our preparation for the game was one factor that earned the victory tonight,” he told the official Asian Football Confederation website.
Japanese-born Jong Tae-Se, dubbed “Asia’s Wayne Rooney” by South Korean media because of his combative style, is one of the few players from the North who plies his trade outside the isolated state’s heavily guarded borders — for Kawasaki Frontale in Japan’s J-League.
“I think the players of the Republic have very high individual skills and the team has functioned as a unit with defensive tactics which allowed individual defensive skills to show,” Jong told AFP last year.
The North’s new-found success is a far cry from just a few years ago when they all but vanished from international football after losing to arch-rivals Japan and South Korea in qualifiers for the 1994 tournament.
Football may be the most popular sport in North Korea but that did not stop Pyongyang’s leadership from banning the team from travelling abroad.
They returned to international football at the Bangkok Asian Games in late 1999 but did not compete in qualifying for the 1998 World Cup in France or the 2002 edition.
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