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Scoring might be a problem

November 30, 2009
Young By Mark Young
Special to

Like their insular, closed country, very little is known about the North Korea national team. But based on the team's emotional on-field celebrations in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on the night it clinched a berth in South Africa, it's fair to say that this is a close unit that is thrilled to reach the World Cup for only the second time. And that first World Cup appearance, in 1966, proved to be one of the most memorable in soccer history.

North Korea was a completely unknown entity in 1966. An opening-game loss to the Soviet Union and a tie with Chile gave no indication that North Korea would later produce a seismic upset for the ages while beating Italy, 1-0, making it the first Asian team to advance to the Elite Eight. (The Italian players were famously pelted with tomatoes and eggs by irate fans at the airport upon their return home.) Entering the tournament, North Korea was a 1,000-to-1 shot to win the World Cup.

Reportedly, Italian fans called North Korea's goal scorer Pak Doo-ik "the Dentist" because he had caused them so much pain. In the quarterfinals, North Korea played Portugal and jumped out to a 3-0 lead, before the legendary Eusebio took over the game and ended the Cinderella run, scoring four goals as Portugal came back to win 5-3. The 1966 North Korean team was the subject of a 2002 BBC documentary "The Game of Their Lives."

Hong Yong-jo
STR/AFP/Getty Images Hong Yong-jo pulls the strings in midfield.

The current team's journey to South Africa began Oct. 21, 2007, in Mongolia. After defeating Mongolia 9-2 on aggregate in the home-and-home series, North Korea received a bye into Round 3. In the final qualifying phase (Round 4), North Korea was again drawn with South Korea's group, and again finished second. On the last day of qualifying, North Korea traveled to Saudi Arabia. A win for Saudi Arabia would have seen the Saudis advance, but North Korea knew a tie would punch its ticket. Ri Myung-guk was outstanding in goal as North Korea got the result it needed (0-0) to advance.

The ongoing political tensions between North and South Korea did spill into the sports arena during qualifying when North Korea announced it would not play South Korea's national anthem or fly the South Korean flag in Pyongyang. Instead, North Korea offered to play a folk song popular on both sides of the border and fly the flag used by both nations when parading together at the Olympics. South Korea rejected the idea and FIFA switched the North Korea home games to Shanghai. No other sanctions were imposed on North Korea, even though it had violated FIFA rules honoring flags and the playing of national anthems before games.

North Korea did travel to Seoul for South Korea's two home games. Before the April 1 game, North Korean officials claimed the team's food had been poisoned and asked for the venue to be changed. FIFA refused. After the 1-0 loss, North Korea maintained its claim that South Korea had conspired against the team as part of a larger plot led by the Seoul government. Of the archrivals' four World Cup qualifying games, it was the only one either team won, the other three ending in ties. The teams had also played each other in the qualifying rounds of the 1990 and 1994 World Cups. The 2010 World Cup will mark the first time both Koreas have appeared at the same tournament.

In 16 qualifying games, North Korea had 8 wins, 2 losses and 6 ties. Manager Kim Jong-hun's team plays a tight defensive system (sometimes even deploying a five-man back line) and relies on counterattacking at speed for offense. A bunker mentality combined with remarkable stamina and work ethic makes North Korea a tough team to break down. But despite the presence of Jong Tae-se, Asia's Wayne Rooney, scoring is a big weakness for North Korea. Although they hit Mongolia for 9 goals in the first round, the North Koreans managed only 11 goals in 14 games the rest of the way, and were shut out six times. The defensive anchor is Ri Jun-il, the only player to start every qualifying game, and goalkeeper Ri Myong-guk is an agile stopper. At midfield, Hong Yong-jo, Mun In-guk and An Yong-hak pull the strings.

Jong and An are both Zainichi (Japanese-born, ethnic Koreans) and hold South Korean citizenship, but chose to play for North Korea even though they have never lived there. Both players were educated in Japanese schools run by Pyongyang-affiliated Koreans.

Mark Young is a World Cup writer and researcher for ESPN.