Eighty-four minutes had already passed at the Estadio Regional de Chinquihue when Costa Rica levelled the scores at 1-1 against Korea DPR, a result that would have consigned the Asian side to a premature group-stage exit at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015.
“At that moment I thought, ‘It’s all over,’” Jong Chang Bom recalled when discussing the closing minutes of his team’s encounter with the Ticos with FIFA.com. “But a second later I realised we only needed one more goal – and we did everything in our power to get it.”
The young striker ultimately found the target in stoppage time to hand the Asian champions a momentous 2-1 win and secure their place in the Round of 16 as one of the best third-placed group finishers. Korea DPR’s players exuberantly celebrated this unlikely achievement from the moment the final whistle sounded, their jubilation continuing in the dressing room long after the stands emptied.
A surprising but perfectly timed performance Coach Yon Kwang Mu’s charges knew only too well that a group containing South Africa, Russia and Costa Rica had given them far more of a headache than many had expected. A 2-0 defeat by the Europeans was swiftly followed by a 1-1 draw with the competition’s African debutants, to leave the North Koreans on the brink of an early exit.
“We had to acclimatise to life here in Chile and get used to the conditions, and that took a while,” Jong explained. “We had some difficulties in the first two matches but improved against Costa Rica. We just needed a little time,” he said, adding confidently: “We’ll get better; against Mali we want to play the way we did at the Asian Championship.” At last year’s continental showdown, Korea DPR swept aside teams including Iran, Australia and southern neighbours Korea Republic to lift the trophy.
Jong’s own South American adventure also got off to a bumpy start. Introduced as a second-half substitute in his team’s opener, he was then brought off by his coach for tactical reasons just 33 minutes into the second game. The smallest player in the North Korean squad finally played the full 90 minutes against the Central Americans, repaying Yon’s trust in him with a superb performance in which he set up Pak Yong Gwan’s first-half strike in fine style before netting the winner in injury time.
Battle of the continental champions Jong insists that he has never encountered any difficulties as a result of his diminutive stature. “You just have to concentrate on other things,” he explained. “Although headers are occasionally tough, every player has their own individual strengths they can focus on.”
Korea DPR’s Round of 16 tie will be a clash between two continental heavyweights. African champions Mali garnered attention during the group stages with their irrepressible attacking intent, registering a record 70 attempts on goal in three matches.
“I’d prefer our opponents to play on the front foot, as it should make for an interesting game,” said an excited Jong ahead of Thursday’s fixture in Talca. “We might even have a slight advantage, having already played South Africa and getting to know African football a little better. If we work together, we can beat anyone,” he continued.
“Of course we want to win the title here. Nobody has travelled to Chile just to survive the group stage. Many teams have no idea how good we are. We want to show the world what we can do and prove that Korea DPR are not a weak side.”