Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Monsoon And North Koreans Hit Seoul

The Rainy Season arrived in Seoul on Wednesday, 24 hours before the North Koreans were due to touch down. Skies above the peninsula were more threatening than a Dutch counter-attack.

The ‘Sunshine Policy’ of recent South Korean governments in regards to the communist North Korea had its critics who claimed that all the warmth was flowing one-way only. Last weekend however, the roles were reversed as the North Korean national soccer team did its southern counterpart a big favor during qualification for the 2010 World Cup. Fans in Seoul will get a chance to show their appreciation on Sunday night as north and south do battle at the Seoul World Cup Stadium.

DPRK defeated Jordan 2-0 in Pyongyang early last Saturday evening. That result meant that the team was certain of a top two finish in Group Three and a place in the final round of qualification which starts in September. It also ensured that it would be joined by South Korea. It was a pleasant piece of news for the Taeguk Warriors four hours before they took the field against Turkmenistan.

The fact that both Koreas are through with one game to spare in Group Three means that Sunday’s match will be lacking a competitive edge that could otherwise have made it very interesting. The two coaches won’t mind that one bit. It is an extra game and a welcome chance to iron out some of the rough spots that had become apparent during the previous four matches.

For the south, there was another bonus against Turkmenistan – the three goals from midfielder Kim Do-heon. It was a ray of sunshine at the end of a week that had seen Park Ji-sung experience knee problems. Kim, drafted into the team to replace the Manchester United man, was the star of the show in the Olympic Stadium in Ashgabat.

The three goals will also have been well-received in England at Kim’s club, Premier League new boys West Bromich Albion. Now the sometimes shaggy-haired midfielder deserves to keep his place in the team for the ‘Korea Derby’ regardless of whether Park recovers. “It’s my wife’s birthday tomorrow and I wanted to give a present to our baby that will be born soon,” Kim told reporters. “It was a nice victory and it is good that now there is no pressure on us for the North Korea match.”

Kim returned to Seoul on Sunday, in time to share seaweed soup with his wife and four days before the North Koreans. There were concerns they would never arrive and even now, FIFA and Korean Football Association (KFA) will breathe a sigh of relief when the plane from Beijing touches down in Incheon.

The first inter-Korean match that was due to take place in Pyongyang in March 26 was relocated to Shanghai following a row over the playing of national anthems and the flying of flags. The South Koreans have demonstrated in recent years, especially at the 2005 East Asian Championships, that they don’t have a problem with the North Korean flag fluttering in the Land of the Morning Calm.

Despite that the north still wasn’t too keen. In April, it was first reported that it wanted FIFA to move the game. Last week, the beef protests in Gwanghwamun provided another opportunity. Officials said they were concerned about the safety of their players, even the vegetarian ones. Once again, it was requested that Saturday’s game be relocated from Seoul to a third country or Jeju Island, famous for its pork. Once again, the KFA, backed by FIFA, refused and Huh Jung-moo was able to start focusing on the game.

“North Korea is a very defensive team,” Huh Jung-moo said on Tuesday, pointing out that it had yet to concede a goal in five qualification matches. “We need to break through their defence line but also watch out for their counter-attacks.”

Such sorties will likely be led by Jong Tae-se. For most southern fans it is the first chance to take a look at North Korea’s star striker. Jong, dubbed “The People’s Rooney” was born to South Korean parents in Japan and scored against his parents’ homeland in February at the East Asian Cup. “I am ready to show what I can do in Seoul,” he told reporters last week. “We are looking to win.”

It doesn’t matter who wins now. It is all about getting ready for the next round.

Copyright: John Duerden &

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