North Korea aiming to invoke spirit of '66
With another World Cup year full of sparkling promise and those wonderful television programmes about legends of yesteryear now well and truly upon us, it seems an appropriate moment to launch a series that takes a look at the Asian teams representing the most populous continent in the world this summer. And there is no better team to begin with than one of the most surprising qualifiers for this World Cup edition - a nation that reached the quarter-finals in its only previous appearance at the tournament.
North Korea sensationally overcame the traditional Asian superpowers of Iran and Saudi Arabia to qualify along with neighbours South Korea as well as Japan and Australia from the Asian qualifying rounds. Even within Asian football, the North Koreans have a reputation as being the eternal 'surprise packages', a reputation that was cemented when they stunned the football world 44 years ago to reach the quarter-finals in their first attempt on football's biggest stage.
Since then, admittedly, there has been quite a lull for followers of the Chollima - one that success-starved England fans will be all too aware of. Step forward North Korea's very own miracle maker, Kim Jong-Hun, the home-grown football coach who has moulded a team of apparent no-hopers into a combative side that has been very difficult to break down at the back and extremely dangerous on the counter.
When I met Jong-Hun this January on the sidelines of his team's preparatory tournament in Qatar - a four-nation round-robin event also featuring Mali, Iran and Qatar - he was fresh from 90 minutes of high-octane instructional shouting which resulted in a 1-0 win over Mali. Off the pitch, he was softly spoken and courteous, searching with one of his players (who was equally short of English, but produced a thumbs-up response when asked about the World Cup draw containing Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast) for the team's interpreter.
"I think our team did a fantastic job to qualify from a very difficult Asian qualifying campaign and to reach our first finals since 1966, when I was only ten years old and looked up to the team as my heroes," Kim Jong-Hun said when the interpreter arrived.
"Now, of course, we have been drawn in a very tough group with Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast. These are all very strong teams, and I don't think we can say any one of them is better than the other. They each possess a great squad of high quality players. We, on the other hand, will focus on our strengths: we will show our great team spirit."
Indeed, the team can be compared to the Greek team of Euro 2004 in terms of style and tactics. There is an almost obsessive focus on defensive discipline and a keen work ethic fostered in no small part by the man on the sideline, who almost seems to frighten his team into disciplined displays. The contrast with his off-field displays is delightful. Here, he takes no credit at all for North Korea's recent turnaround in fortunes, which has also included an impressive sweep of regional women's football titles.
"I think it is the result of our Great Leader's care for our players. Asian players are not so tall, so we try to play to our strengths, to use our style of play which has served us very well in the qualifying campaign. We will defend well, play on the counter-attack with fast breaks forward, and give it our best shot at the World Cup. We may not be the favourites, but neither was our team in 1966."
At the World Cup in England 44 years ago, the North Koreans stunned Italy 1-0 before coming undone 5-3 in an epic quarter-final against Portugal, despite leading the game 3-0. This year in South Africa, they face a mouth-watering opener against Brazil in Johannesburg before facing Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal in their second game. Neither Ronaldo nor Kaka should expect too much room to manoeuvre, with the North Koreans famous for their low-scoring results.
But for Ronald de Boer, the former Barcelona star who now closely follows Asian football, the outsiders stand little chance of escaping from the Group of Death to make the second round.
"I think it's still too early. I think they will struggle,'' he says. ''Not in terms of fight and giving everything, but you can't compare them to Brazil. But it's great that they'll be there - they should enjoy it and be an example to other youths in their country. People will get attracted to football so you get more and more people interested and that is a great thing for North Korean football."
For Kim Jong-Hun, though, making the World Cup finals alone will not do. The wily tactician is already working on the seemingly impossible: emulating his childhood heroes of 1966.