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Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Sports

N Korea target WC

It may not please the purists, but North Korea's football team is firmly on course for the 2010 World Cup after reaching the last round of qualifying without losing or even conceding a goal.

If they do make it, it will be the isolated communist state's first World Cup in 44 years and despite a lowly world ranking of 94, below such minnows as Gambia and Suriname.

The endeavours also come at a time when the country, ruled with an iron fist by Kim Jong-Il, is believed to be suffering acute food shortages, reviving memories of a famine in the 1990s which left up to one million people dead.

Better known for its nuclear weapons programme and dubious human rights record, North Korea, who play all in white, have hardly endeared themselves either with their defensive brand of football.

Yet it appears to work.

In the previous qualifying group North Korea scored only four goals in their three wins and three draws, but they kept a clean sheet every time thanks to a solid rearguard action that would make Italy look adventurous.

With Brazil sitting uncomfortably in their qualifying group on the other side of the world and other end of the footballing spectrum, it raises the spectre of a World Cup with North Korea but without the five-time champions.

One of the few who play outside North Korea's tightly guarded borders is 24-year-old striker Jong Tae-Se, of Kawasaki Frontale, a mid-table side in Japan's J-League.

Japan-born Jong, dubbed "Asia's Wayne Rooney" by South Korean media, is confident the North can reach South Africa 2010 despite being drawn in the harder of two final Asian qualifying groups.

"I think the players of the Republic have very high individual skills and the team has functioned as a unit with defensive tactics which allowed individual defensive skills to show. This is a factor in our success," said Jong.

He believes the handful of team members who play in the "outside world" have helped the rest of the squad, most of whom ply their trade in Pyongyang's 12-team central league.

"I think our presence rather than our capability is what matters most. I can feel how much they care about how we, as professionals playing football in the outside world, prepare ourselves mentally in training and matches."

North Korea are targeting only their second ever World Cup and first since England 1966, when they stunned the football world by becoming the first Asian team to reach the quarterfinals, upsetting Italy 1-0 en route.

Their new-found success under coach Kim Jong-Hoon is a far cry from just a few years ago when they all but vanished from international football after losing to Japan and South Korea in qualifiers for the 1994 tournament.

Football may be the most popular sport in North Korea but that did not stop all-powerful leader Kim Jong-Il, angered by the team's poor fortunes, from banning the team from travelling abroad for 10 years.

They returned to international football at the Bangkok Asian Games in late 1999 but did not compete in qualifying for the 1998 World Cup in France or the 2002 edition.

That fit of pique passed but the North's players are subject to travel restrictions that would be unthinkable for most international footballers, said one seasoned follower of the team.

Ri Gwang-Hong, executive director of the Pyongyang-friendly Korean Football Association in Japan, has watched most the qualifiers so far.

"The (next) qualifying group has many Middle East countries so it will be difficult for us to schedule our travels. It is not as easy as in Japan when it comes to immigration control. We have to find a way," said Ri.

Immigration and political concerns means "our team plays fewer matches abroad than any other team," he said.

Ri also knows that if the team is to come through a group comprising Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and, again, cross-border rivals South Korea, they will have to do more than just soak up the pressure and play on the break.

"We will aim for a kind of football in which we try not to lose, counting on home advantage and withstanding tough conditions on the road," he said.

North Korea have the first of their eight final qualifiers on September 6 at UAE and face South Korea four days later.

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