Every World Cup there are always a couple of teams who simply don’t belong on the same pitch as their opponents. This year a relatively unknown side from North Korea will fulfill that role, and look for unexpected success in just their second tournament appearance ever. The North Koreans have come far when it comes to their progression in the soccer world ranks, as in 1998 and 2002 they chose not to even enter a team for qualification. Yet although they have emerged from obscurity in the soccer world, South Africa will prove incredibly difficult for the Chollima of North Korea. Matched against top-ranked Brazil, Portugal, and the Ivory Coast, their inferior lineup will be in tough just to manage a goal in this ‘Group of Death.’
Truthfully, nobody is expecting anything interesting on the field for this side, but the off-field storylines will surely be intriguing. Currently engulfed in an oppressive fascist regime under dictator Kim Jong-Il, the North Korean side will look to give their 23 million citizens something to be proud of. Of course, that is only if they’re allowed to watch the games. Rumors have circulated throughout the soccer world about Kim Jong-Il’s restrictive policies on his civilians during this year’s World Cup. There is a real possibility that games will not be shown to the people live, and the citizens will only get immediate word of their team’s results if they end up victorious. If that is the case, chances are the people of North Korea won’t be hearing many reports about their team from South Africa.
As far as previous World Cup experience goes for this team, there certainly isn’t much to draw on. They have made it only once and surprisingly advanced to the quarter-finals in a situation similar to the one they will enter in South Africa. Recently, they have either not qualified or chosen not to enter, so the experiences this roster will gain at such a world-class exhibition of soccer talent will be crucial for the advancement of the sport in North Korea.
Heading into competition, the North Koreans in all honesty are simply happy to have qualified. They narrowly escaped an easy qualification group, beating out Saudi Arabia on a differential of two goals, and although they produced some impressive results throughout, will likely exit South Africa with a whimper in a tough Group G field. Recently however, they have managed some impressive results abroad, sending a clear message to the world that they don’t want to be treated as a pushover. On April 22nd they drew tournament hosts South Africa in a friendly match, and more recently tied Euro 2004 winners Greece by a score of 2-2. Both teams the North Koreans battled were legitimate World Cup sides with realistic hopes of advancing to the second round and yet the underdog Koreans displayed an ability to play right with them. They will look to build on these results June 15th when they open against perennial favorites Brazil.
This year’s North Korean team preaches defense and that is about it. Coach Kim Jong-Hun is incredibly defensively oriented and has adopted an ultra-conservative 5-4-1 formation. They will look to sit back and focus on playing a counterattacking game, catching their offensively minded Group G opponents off-guard. Speed is another advantage of this side as they have plenty of it and has proven to be beneficial in their quick-strike offense. North Korea’s coach chose to field a very similar lineup for every qualifying game, allowing the players to become familiar with one another and produce better team cohesion. They possess one star player, the powerful striker Jong Tae-se, who is lethal in the air, and recently produced two wonderful goals in the 2-2 draw against Greece. He has been humorously dubbed the “Asian Wayne Rooney” and will look to live up to the moniker as the watchful eyes of Kim Jong-Il will be solely focused on this striker to produce some shocking results for the underdog squad.
Although this is a roster merely happy to have qualified for South Africa, it doesn’t mean there aren’t any expectations on the team. Being under a harsh dictatorship will do that to you. Their leader and citizens would love to have something to be proud of in South Africa, but their glaring deficiencies make it highly improbable. Despite possessing the talented Jong Tae-se, the other players on the pitch with him lack the necessary firepower to maintain a concerted offensive attack. In the lead up to South Africa, and stretching throughout qualification, they only managed seven goals in eight games against far inferior opposition to what they will experience at the World Cup. Additionally, expect the inexperience of the players to show early on as a lot of their roster has yet to face prominent sides outside of Asia. Such a blatant lack of international experience could prove to be their main blockade in producing a favorable result at this year’s competition.
Although it would make for a great story for the North Koreans to upset one of the three powerhouses in their tough group, don’t count on it happening. They should get embarrassed by Brazil in the first game, and they may challenge Portugal and the Ivory Coast in the latter two, but still produce nothing eye-opening. The real question for this year’s North Korean team won’t be how many points they manage, but how many goals they can produce. My money will be on zero.
North Korea Prediction: 4th Place in Group G (First-Round Exit)
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