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Team preview: North Korea

June 4, 2010
By Gus Martins
Special to ESPN.com
(Archive)

The World Cup affords the rich getting richer and pariah nations like North Korea to dispel stereotypes. But in a country as furtive and paranoid as this one, do not expect a full-fledged public relations effort to burnish its image. Even if its World Cup history includes a 1-0 victory over Italy in the 1966 World Cup, followed by a 3-0 lead over Portugal before Eusebio scored four goals en route to a 5-3 comeback win, there seems very little self-promotion emanating from within this state. The lowest-ranking team in the finals (106 in the FIFA rankigns), North Korea defeated Mongolia, Iran, UAE and Saudi Arabia to qualify for the first time since '66. That's when the Koreans really got something to complain about after being grouped with Brazil, Ivory Coast and Portugal in what is the so-called Group of Death.

Coach: Kim Jong-Hun.

Very little is known about him. In one of the few interviews he's conducted, Kim gave all credit for his team's performance to "the Great Leader's (that being Kim Jong-il) care" for his players. With total adherence to the state and the first family being a prime survival mechanism, it is interesting to wonder just who among his international coaching fraternity he models himself after.

Style of play

By all accounts, the "Chollima," (Pegasus) as they call themselves, are a defensive-minded team that closes the midfield and keeps things tight while playing with only one striker. It is also a team that will, like its estranged brothers to the south, run all day in an effort to frustrate their opponents. But South Korea, perhaps Asia's best team, has a pedigree and polish from years of qualifying. Even the best-laid counterattack, though, might need to have more than one man attacking. Look for North Korea to use a 4-5-1 alignment, or even a 5-3-1-1.

Payers to watch

1. Hong Young-Jo. At 27, Hong -- the team captain -- is the only North Korean-born player who plays abroad, plying his trade for FC Rostov in Rostov-on-Don, a Russian city on the sea of Azov. Another party acolyte, Hong was said to be unaware of the amount of his salary and unlike his teammates did not drive an expensive car. But he is known to score important goals. His performance in Russia has been sketchy, scoring only three times in his tenure there.

2. Ahn Young-Hak. The 31-year-old midfielder was born and raised in Japan and plays for Japanese team Omiya Ardija

3. Jong Tae-Se. He holds South Korean citizenship but was also born and raised in Japan, is seen as the team's best all-around player. The 26-year-old plays for Kawasaki Frontale (where he has scored 46 goals in 111 games), writes a blog and is called the Asian Wayne Rooney, a moniker he quite enjoys.

Who's hot

Jong. He recently scored two brilliant goals in a 2-2 friendly draw with Greece. For North Korea to surprise, it will need to score a goal or two, and those will likely come from Jong.

Who's not

Kim Myong-Won. Kim normally plays a forward or midfield position, but was listed on the official FIFA roster entry as a goalkeeper, as the Koreans attempted to add an extra attacker to their squad (teams are required to include three keepers on their 23-man rosters). The move backfired when FIFA declared Kim could only play as a goalkeeper.

Three key questions

1. How will the players adapt? Coming from a country so isolated, can the team adjust to an international environment without being awed by the elite performers they'll see face-to-face for the first time?

2. Will they have any supporters? They won't have any countrymen in the stands rooting for them, but it will be interesting to see if crowd support swings their way if they're in a tight game.

3. Will any of the players, romanced by the riches and grandeur of the international game, attempt to defect and seek political asylum in South Africa? If any player does, he better make sure his plan works.

Projected lineup

G Ri Myong-Guk, Pyongyang City
D Cha Jong-Hyok, Amrokgang
D Nam Song-Chol, April 25
D Pak Chol-Jin, Amrokgang
D Ri Jun-il, Sobaeksu
M Ahn Young-Hak, Omiya Ardija (Japan)
M Ji Yun-Nam, April 25
M Kim Kyong-Il, Rimyongsu
M Kim Yong-Jun, Pyongyang City
F Hong Yong-Jo, Rostov (Russia)
F Jong Tae-Se, Kawasaki Frontale (Japan)