20 December 2014

A look at a very encoraging 2014 for North Korea


ESPN's Asia football correspondent who also works for BBC Radio, The Guardian and World Soccer. Writes for The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Daily Telegraph, One World Sports and various Asia media.
Second is nowhere, they say, but with three final appearances at various Asian youth championships in the space of a month in 2014, football in North Korea is going somewhere. It's just a question of how far and how fast.
All teams from the other side of the 38th Parallel measure themselves against the North Korea team that defeated Italy 1-0 in the 1966 World Cup, still one of the greatest shocks in football history. Now though, there are new names that could, one day, rank alongside that of Middlesbrough match winner Pak Doo Ik.
A policy put into place by football authorities after the 2010 World Cup is just beginning to pay off. The plan was a simple one: send the top young players abroad as much as possible.
This may sound a little strange given the well-known secrecy and isolation of the country from much of the global community, but the foundations have already been put in place.
Of North Korea's three recent finals, only the Asian Under-16 Championship in September ended in victory, but the slightly older North Korean youngsters getting within touching distance of the continent's Under-19 Championship a month later was just as valuable.
And then there was the Asian Games, an Under-23 competition, in October. If it is true that you learn more from defeat than victory, this particular 1-0 defeat at the hands of host South Korea in the gold medal match of the biggest tournament in the biggest continent after the Asian Cup, delivered lesson after lesson.
Losing rarely looked so painful. The goal came in the 121st minute, seconds after North Korea's Ri Yong Jik had cleared off the line with an arm above his head. The referee allowed play to continue for lower-league right-back Rim Chang Woo to tap home.
But the disputed goal wasn't the most agonizing aspect of the defeat, nor the fact that it was against North Korea's biggest rival of them all, on their home turf of Incheon. It was that North Korea came so close to accomplishing one of the country's greatest sporting moments.
The players were devastated. Coach Yun Jong Su was livid about the goal, so much so that his complaints got him in hot water and the Asian Football Confederation banned him for a year, meaning he'll miss the 2015 Asian Cup, which kicks off in January.
But it was the Asian Under-16 triumph that really excited Pyongyang. Not only did it end in a win; it also was achieved at least partly by a new vision, one that sees a future North Korean national team full of players with international experience.
It was obvious after the three defeats in South Africa 2010 that a lack of overseas nous made a tough group even tougher. With few players in Europe, few friendly games for the national team and no competitive club games internationally, opportunities for meaningful tests were severely limited. 
After the 2010 World Cup, players such as Cha Jong Hyuk and Pak Kwang Ryong joined clubs in Switzerland and with the Japan-based contingent in J.League action, the situation was starting to look better. More was needed, and in 2013, the Pyongyang International Football School was opened, a place for the best talent in the country, as young as eight, to be trained by local and foreign coaches.
The very best, however, now go to Europe. Since 2012, defensive prospects such as left-back Choi Jin Nam and centre-back Kim Wi Song have been sent to academies and youth teams in -- where else? -- Italy. Midfielders and forwards such as Han Kwang Sung and Choi Sang Hyuk went to Spain. In total, six of the eleven that started the final of the Asia Under-16 championship against South Korea in September, had spent time playing and training in Europe.
These youngsters helped create a formidable unit and were deserved winners of the Under-16 competition. After entertaining in the group stage, the team tightened up, squeezing past Iran and Australia in the quarterfinal and semifinal respectively. The North Koreans are well-organised and technically sound, but there was perhaps a little more wiliness in defence and creativity in attack. All of that was needed in the final against a South Korean team led by Lee Seung Woo.
The Barcelona starlet was the story of the Bangkok tournament -- he may be called the "Korean Messi," but his strike in the quarter-final against fancied Japan was vintage Maradona. He was expected to lead the young TaegukWarriors to the title against the old rival from the north, but his opponents were up to the challenge.
Hair bleached blond, with a swagger perhaps stemming from his club as well as his undoubted skill, Lee's mere presence unsettled DPRK defenders. In the first half of the final, they focused on fouling, but teammates took advantage to give the south the lead. After the break, North Korea started to cut off the supply and space before starting to play themselves. Han Kwang Song, whose hero is Pak Doo Ik, chipped in with a thunderbolt as his team went on to win 2-1. The Under-16 trophy arrived in Pyongyang by train and was paraded around the streets in front of thousands of fans.
There could have been three days of celebration in the capital in 2014, but despite the pain of two final defeats the country's fans have much to smile about. North Korea has had a great year and there may well be more to come.

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