08 January 2017

Outlook bright for North Korean football

By John Duerden
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.