North Korean Football: Not A Load of Pants

North Korea were the unknown entity in South Africa then they surprised the world by taking on Brazil and almost succeeding. Here's why they could still decide the Group of Death.
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Propaganda dominates most areas of life in Pyongyang, but it seems that football can transcend political oppression. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il rules over his country with an iron fist, part monarch, part deity, controlling almost every aspect of the population’s lives, but he can’t change football results.

When North Korea secured their first World Cup ticket in 44 years, the dictator known to his people as the Great Leader rejoiced publicly but at the same time made arrangements for games to only be broadcast in his country should the right team win. It is widely believed that a dispute with South Korea over a fee for broadcast rights is merely a front to provide an excuse for a TV blackout. But the people of Pyongyang aren’t so easily fooled. North Korea’s football loving public are approaching the tournament with realism and very few expect anything but a first round exit from a side ranked 106th in the world by FIFA. Even a nation locked away from the outside world knows that Brazil and Portugal are favourites in Group G. The weight of expectations for the squad won’t come from the general public but rather from their temperamental leader.

Partly for that reason, unlike Cameroon, Senegal and other super minnows of past competitions, North Korea certainly won’t be adopting a gung-ho attitude. Coach Kim Jong-Hun isn’t going to South Africa to win hearts and minds. A dour disciplinarian at the best of times, the tactician isn’t likely to crack too many smiles at training given the enormous pressure heaped on him by Kim Jong-Il and concerns about his health after he suffered a mild stroke before leaving for the finals. Although North Korean officials aren’t allowed to conduct interviews, the squad will meet the minimum FIFA requirements but the press corps shouldn’t expect anything more than succinct, often one-word answers.

Kim Jong-Hun’s mission is to use the limited resources he has to frustrate three open, attacking teams and hope for some luck on the break. It’s a tactic that plays to North Korea’s strong suit. During qualification they conceded just seven times in 16 matches, but the likes of Iran and the UAE won’t have prepared them for Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba.

We can expect to see a five-man defence, but a lack of protection from the midfield and invention from the wing-backs could see the men in red get pinned back for long periods. Long balls will be the norm and everyone will be expected to perform defensive duties. The coaching team insist that every player, even a lone striker, has a defensive responsibility.

"Kim Jong-Il rules over his country with an iron fist, part monarch, part deity, controlling almost every aspect of the population’s lives, but he can’t change football results."

Fitness shouldn’t be a problem for a well-drilled side who will have been subjected to an intense cardiovascular regimen in the run-up to the big kick-off, but with all but three of their squad members playing their football within North Korea, the pace of their opponents’ passing will come as a shock. The DPR Korea League isn’t without its merits, but the lower teams roughly equate to League One – it’s more Brentford than Brazil. As a result, there are serious doubts about centre-back Ri Kwang-Chon’s ability to deal with quick strikers. He has kept his place due to his flair for the counterattack thanks to his knack for accurate, first-time balls to the midfield. The more experienced Nam Song-Chol is tougher in the tackle, more aware of position, but susceptible to lapses in concentration in the air.

The main attacking threat is Jong Tae-Se. Born in Japan, the 26-year-old has an impressive strike rate in the J-League for Kawasaki Frontale and also in qualification. His nickname is ‘Asia’s Wayne Rooney’, partly because of his eye for goal, but mostly because of his battering ram physical approach. He may be talented, but he is rarely subtle. However, he will have to deal with a distinct lack of service and may have to plough a lone furrow. Captain Hong Yong-Jo could start alongside Jong and can pose a threat after two seasons in Russia with FC Rostov that have seen him grow at an impressive rate, but safety-first tactics will probably ensure that the two men are competing for one place in the starting 11.

Kim Jong-Hun will certainly look for three 0-0 draws, but the interest will come in seeing his Plan B unfold. The game against Brazil will surely be approached as an exercise in damage limitation, but the coach can’t afford to return home without so much as a goal to show for his efforts, so he will at some point have to take the bolts off the door. Only then is a point or a humiliating thrashing a possibility, otherwise it will surely be three 2-0 or 3-0 defeats.

If North Korea return with as much as a point, it will be a huge achievement but for many of the players the real question will be whether they return at all. Behind the scenes there is a real fear in Pyongyang that star players may choose to seek sanctuary in South Africa rather than return to their poverty-ravaged nation. The devastating stigma that such a desertion would inflict on his family may be enough to persuade the squad to board the return flight, but with a world of scouts to impress the North Korean players certainly won’t be short of motivation.

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