Friday, August 28, 2009

North Korea Not There To Make Up The Numbers

North Korea Not There To Make Up The Numbers.
There were few eyebrows raised earlier this summer when South Korea clinched a place at the 2010 World Cup. After all, the Taeguk Warriors had qualified for the previous six global tournaments; a seventh successive spot was impressive but not especially newsworthy.

But North Korea making a second ever appearance at the World Cup? Now that is a little different and made headlines from Argentina to Zimbabwe.

The first time round, it all happened in England in 1966. The unfancied north-east Asians shocked the soccer world by defeating the mighty Italians 1-0. The Azzurri returned home to be pelted by tomatoes at the airport while North Korea progressed to a quarterfinal against Portugal.

There, in the city of Liverpool, cheered on by thousands of English fans that had taken the underdogs to their hearts, the Koreans took an amazing 3-0 lead. It didn’t - it couldn’t - last, and their dreams were dashed by the mighty Eusebio who inspired a comeback and a 5-3 win.

Something similar in South Africa would keep soccer fans north of the 38th Parallel happy for another 44 years. That is exactly what North Korean midfielder An Yong-hak told me recently.

“As a team, we haven’t really talked about our final objective,” the 30 year-old said.

"However, personally, I really want to win games at the World Cup and not just be satisfied with participation. I want to go past the first round of tournament. I know it will be difficult, but I want to win and go to the second round rather than being satisfied saying that it’s okay to draw or to lose just because we are in World Cup.”

The whole nation is already excited and is still recovering from the tension involved in booking the spot in South Africa. With one match remaining in a tight qualification group, North Korea had to go to West Asian powerhouse Saudi Arabia on June 17 and avoid defeat.

It could have been worse. Earlier in the evening South Korea had played Iran in Seoul. An Iranian win would have left An and his team-mates needing victory in Riyadh. With Iran leading 1-0 with nine minutes left at Seoul World Cup Stadium. It wasn’t looking good but then Park Ji-sung struck to score a goal that was cheered all over the Korean peninsula and a hotel in Riyadh.

“I watched the game with my roommate in my hotel room in Saudi Arabia,” recalls An. “(When Park scored) I thought, "Thank you so much, thank you so much." Because that meant we had a great chance!”

Despite only needing a draw and not a win, it was still a tough and tight encounter at the King Fahd International Stadium and Saudi Arabia spent much of the match attacking.

“As the game started, we were a bit nervous, more than a usual game, but we tried to encourage each other and help each other as much as we could. Playing in that match and doing what we did was like achieving my dream. We knew that we had to be as good as could be. We knew that this was our chance to go to the World Cup and we weren’t going to let that go.”

"We all knew that if we won this game, we would qualify for the World Cup. At the same time, we knew that if we made a mistake in the game then we would regret missing the chance for the rest of our lives.”

They didn’t and they won’t. The players did their duty to earn a spot at the biggest sporting event on the planet next summer. Scenes of DPRK joy at the stadium were beamed around the world but it was a restrained occasion for the players.

"If we had been in Pyongyang at that moment, we might have gone out and celebrated,” said An.

"But we were in Saudi Arabia, so we were just delighted with the result in the stadium, and then came back to hotel and went to bed.

“I actually didn’t go back to Pyongyang with the team. However, when the other players arrived in Pyongyang, they received a very enthusiastic greeting at the airport and a lot of people, maybe tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, came out on the streets and congratulated the team all the way from the airport to downtown Pyongyang.”

Now the hard work starts. North Korea, a team that plays few friendly games, will likely be the lowest-ranked team at the World Cup. Opponents may not know much about North Korea but that advantage will only go so far.

“We need experience. We need many practice games. I think until June 2010, we need to improve ourselves by having practice matches with strong teams such as European, South American or African teams.”

That would be ideal practice for An’s ideal group which consists of, “Brazil from South America, England from Europe and Egypt from Africa. They are the best and it will be very difficult.”

And after that? The midfielder has his eyes on a personal prize.

“I want to play in England's Premier League because I have had seen many games on television. The supporters are passionate, and I like the fact that the fans sit really close to the action at the stadium.

Also, the Premier League is a high level league and has a great history with many famous players. That’s where I want to play one day. I would like to play at any good club in the Premier League.”

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile

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