Whatever happens in 2017, North Korea is already smiling when it comes to football. In the final weeks of last year, its women won two World Cups in quick succession.
First came the Under-17 Women's World Cup with the DPRK defeating Japan in the final in Jordan in October. There were more celebrations in Pyongyang on December 3 when the Under-20 team defeated France in Papua New Guinea.
No team in the world has won two world cups in such a short space of time. It is a fine achievement.
The country has always been a power in the women's game without quite hitting the heights it should have. The senior side's best performance at the World Cup was a quarter-final spot in 2007. It has also won three of the last six Asian championships.
The 2019 World Cup, which will be held in France, may just be too early for most of those who starred in the last quarter of 2016 but the stars of the Under-20 win ― including Ri Hyang-sim, Jon So-yon and Kim So-hyang ― will surely be in contention.
One major improvement is the quality of coaching. North Korea has long been able to produce hard-working and technically sound players but, perhaps due to international isolation and a lack of exposure to tactical and coaching trends, it was a struggle to compete at the very top level.
That is changing. Talent is identified at an early age with the best going to schools that are well-versed in the sport.
The best of these can go further. The football federation has started sending talented young men to Spain and Italy to get a taste of the European game, coaching and trends. Of the starting 11 that defeated South Korea in the final of the 2014 Asian Under-16 Championships, six had experience in Europe.
Others who are not so lucky have the fine consolation of a place at the Pyongyang International Football School, opened in 2013 after a, $800,000 grant from the governing body. Foreign coaches are invited from time to time to give players some international exposure.
The academy is home to around 200 students, the best prospects that North Korea has. Almost half are female and they spend plenty of time facing male opponents.
That does not mean that coaches such as Under-20 boss Hwang Yong-bong could not have emerged before, but the present set-up makes it easier to do so. Hwang impressed in Papua New Guinea in leading the team to the big prize, earning accolades from FIFA, especially his tactical flexibility.
"It's a feat that's never been achieved before," said coach Hwang. "I'm delighted with our victory, but we can't stop here. We have to keep on working to win more titles."
Even Korea Football Association officials in Seoul were impressed.
"In the past, North Korea's youth teams did well because of their physical abilities ― they were well prepared, strong and fast," a KFA official, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Korea Times.
"This was less effective at the senior level, as other teams caught up and there was also tactical naivety on behalf of coaches.
"Now though, there are coaches who are able to add strategic knowledge to the team's other strengths. Coach Hwang showed that."
The future looks bright north of the 38th Parallel.
Korea DPR came from behind to secure a 3-1 win over France in the 2016 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup final at the National Football Stadium in Port Moresby.
Grace Geyoro put France ahead early on, but Korea DPR equalised on the half-hour mark and then scored at either end of the second period to seal their first title for ten years.
An electric atmosphere was created by the capacity crowd and the players responded in kind with an up-tempo contest.
Indeed, the match proved to be a contest of fine margins at times with several last-gasp tackles and blocks amid action at both ends of the pitch.
An early goal for France perhaps helped ensure the match was an open affair. Maelle Garbino whipped in a dipping free-kick from the touchline and goalkeeper Kim Myong Sun could only fumble the ball into the path of midfielder Geyoro, who swept the opportunity home.
Buoyed by their lead, France charged forward and Clara Mateo was blocked in the nick of time by Kim Myong Sun as she bore down on goal.
Korea DPR, however, levelled on 30 minutes as the impressive Wi Jong Sim flicked the ball home at the near-post, following a fine left-sided run and cross from Kim Phyong Hwa.
Eight minutes after the break Korea DPR had a golden chance to take the lead. Kim So Hyang burst down the right following a sharp exchange of passes and her low cross was met at the far post by Kim Phyong Hwa, but the No11 somehow pushed her close-range effort wide.
The villain, however, turned heroine within a matter of just minutes. Kim Phyong Hwa headed home from an almost identical position after Wi Jong Sim deflected the ball into her path from a free-kick.
Korea DPR looked in the mood, but the match became disjointed amid a flurry of substitutions and stoppages. France could find no answers despite a late surge, with a Jon So Yon penalty in the closing stages securing victory.
It saw Korea DPR crowned champions of a FIFA women’s tournament for the second time within a matter of weeks.
Jorn Andersen’s men came into the match needing a draw to advance on tiebreakers, and the opening minutes of the game seemingly reflected their desire to prevent Hong Kong’s naturalised attackers such as Alex Akande and Godfried Karikari from creating any major chances on goal.
With fouls increasing and tempers souring on the pitch, it was Jong Il Gwan who scored the lone goal of the match when he stole the ball from Hong Kong’s Leung Chun Pong and broke past the defender before sending a chip shot over the goalkeeper and into the net.
Faced with their first deficit of the tournament, Hong Kong struggled to respond. Alex, fresh off his four-goal performance against Chinese Taipei on Wednesday, found himself surrounded by multiple DPR Korea defenders whenever he entered the penalty area and was rarely able to get off a shot on goal.
The leaders’ confidence was unshaken in the second half as they continued to maintain possession, passing the ball around the middle of the pitch as they pleased. Hong Kong’s frustration showed, with defender Roberto Affonso Junior at one point getting into a verbal altercation with DPR Korea coach Andersen.
A boisterous home crowd numbering in the thousands also appeared short on patience, with three dozen fans rushing to the pitchside hoardings at one point to loudly protest the officials.
But the two goals needed by Kim Pan Gon’s men to pull off a last-minute reversal never materialized, and DPR Korea were left to celebrate at the final whistle as they clinched a second straight appearance in the regional tournament’s final competition where they will join Korea Republic, Japan, and China.
Goals by So Hyun Uk and Pak Kwang Ryong were enough to see DPR Korea past Guam on Wednesday evening in the second matchday of the EAFF E-1 Football Championship 2017 Round 2 Men’s tournament.
Coming off their 2-0 win against Chinese Taipei in the tournament opener, the AFC Asian Cup 2015 participants were forced to make do without manager Jorn Andersen, whose ejection from that match for arguing with an official led to a touchline ban.
His men were frustrated throughout the first half by Guam, whose defending showed marked improvement from their 3-2 loss to Hong Kong. Goalkeeper Douglas Herrick was caught off his line far less frequently, and even in tight situations he was frequently rescued by defenders Alexander Lee and Brandon McDonald.
The Matao quickly earned the favor of the neutral crowd, who cheered every clearance and even booed DPR Korea’s players as they moved the ball up the pitch. Their support seemed to have little effect on Guam’s offensive production, and despite a brief spell of pressure in added time the teams would head into the halftime locker room in a nil-nil deadlock.
DPR Korea continued to pressure when play resumed in the second half, and So Hyun Uk broke the game open in the 67th minute with a tremendous volley from close range to put his team ahead 1-0.
That goal seemed to take a bit of fight out of Guam, who continued to hold strong defensively but remained unable to put any solid pressure on the DPR Korea goal despite the best efforts of Guy and Shayne Malcom’s long throw-ins which got the crowd roaring.
Striker Pak Kwang Ryong put the game away in the 87th minute with a stunning free kick from just outside the Guam penalty area, bringing his team even closer to the final tournament in Japan next December.
A pair of goals bookending 90 minutes of spirited play saw DPR Korea open the EAFF E-1 Championship Men’s Round 2 with a 2-0 win over feisty Chinese Taipei on Sunday afternoon at Hong Kong’s Mong Kok Stadium.
The two sides traded attacks early in the match, and Chinese Taipei striker Wu Chun-Ching drew a free kick deep in enemy territory in the eighth minute that was regrettably wasted.
DPRK made their own attempt on goal soon after, with Chinese Taipei goalkeeper Chiu Yu-Hung forced to fend off several efforts. Despite some big saves early on, he was helpless to stop Pak Song Chol’s 16th-minute corner kick when it went into the net.
While defender Pak Myong Song was credited with the goal, the ball appears to have potentially deflected off of Chinese Taipei defender Chen Ting-Yang.
With the neutral crowd on their side, Chinese Taipei responded with inspired stretches of play but struggled to create chances on goal, a trend that continued through the final whistle.
The second half started with cagy play, and Chinese Taipei’s Chen Po-Liang and DPRK’s Kim Kuk Bom were both shown yellow cards after a scuffle at the hour mark.
Soon after sending on Kim Ju Song to relieve Myong Cha Hyon in the 64th minute, DPRK coach Jorn Andersen was forced to make a second switch when Pak Myong Song appeared to seriously injure his right leg while chasing down a Chinese Taipei attacker.
Andersen would not see Pak’s replacement, defender Sim Hyon Jin, score the team’s second goal of the match through a smooth grounder in the 87th minute; just 10 minutes earlier the Norwegian had been ejected for arguing with the officials.
The result was disappointing for Chinese Taipei coach Kazuo Kuroda, who was promoted from his position as the head of the country’s youth program on Wednesday.