It’s impossible to discuss the North Korean football team without reference to the constant stereotypes, fear and controversy surrounding the region.
The ‘punishment’ given to the members of the 2010 World Cup squad – where they conceded twelve goals in three defeats – remains the most enduring image many will have of this team, and unfortunately, there’s been little done to change that. It went viral on the internet that the North Korean population was informed of their side’s supposed success at the 2014 World Cup. It was probably a factually incorrect, misleading story, but one that does represent the way the Western World views North Koreans.
Therefore, their tactical approach is shrouded in mystery. Very little is known about the side or its players – in fact, it was difficult to find a teamsheet for their most recent international friendlies, let alone even video footage – which is a shame, because it seems like they are taking significant steps forward as a footballing nation.
The youth sides, in particular, have enjoyed great success in the past year. They won silver at the U23 Asian Games, losing to South Korea with a 120th minute equaliser, came second at the AFC u19 Championships and first in the U16 edition. It’s a promising indicator that some talent is starting to emerge in the youth ranks.
Reuters reported recently that the Supreme Leader, Kim, has shown great interest in soccer, recently setting up a school for talented players. “After the school was set up around 40 young players were sent to Spain and Italy for coaching,” said Choi Dong-ho, a South Korean journalist covering North Korea.
Furthermore, the players are increasingly coming from outside the local domestic league. Pak Kwang-Ryong is the great hope, having been signed by FC Basel and currently playing on loan in the Swiss first division for Vaduz. He’ll start upfront. Others, like Cha Jong Hyuk and Choi Jin Nam have spent time abroad, which would be a valuable experience for the players to be exposed to different coaching methods.
Meanwhile, another guaranteed starter is Ri Myong Guk, in goals – a veteran of the 2010 campaign (thanks to the kind Tim Lee for this tip).
Interestingly, Jong Tae-Se, the ‘People’s Rooney’ who became globally popular at the 2010 World Cup after breaking down in tears during the national anthem, failed to make the squad, despite being named on the competition’s official website as the Player to Watch.
Increasing the mystery around North Korea is the fact that their usual coach, Yun Jong Su, who took charge of the U23 side at the Asian Games, was banned for a year after his complaints after the final. That meant North Korea only appointed Jo Tong Sop on a temporary basis in late December. Furthermore, they were the only side that elected not to base their training camp in Australia, instead choosing to stay home as long as possible before coming to Australia a week out from the opening game.
Most oddly of all, North Korea elected to only select 22 players, rather than the allowed 23.
The stereotype of North Korean footballers is that they’re technically limited but very fit and hard working. It’s hard to see that changing when looking at the style the U23s’ played at the Asian Games. In that tournament, they played rather frantically in defence – it wasn’t the usual ‘park the bus’ you might expect of underdogs, but rather just aggressive, in-your-face defending: not particularly organised, but rather entertaining. It’s entirely possible that opponents are initially shocked by what is quite an old-school approach.
Against superior opponents in Group B, they’ll probably end up being forced to defend for long periods – maybe even using the 5-4-1 they played at the 2010 World Cup – and try to hit teams on the counter.