Back

Asian Cup 2015: North Korea in search of a superstar

Due to North Korea’s unique domestic league system, which includes three tiers played at different times of year, the Asian nation does not tend to have representatives in continental club competitions.

Considering this lack of exposure and experience to a higher level of football, the ‘thousand-mile horse’, who are ranked 137th in the world by FIFA, have a surprising history in international tournaments.

The East Asian underdogs do not have the profile of regional rivals Japan, South Korea or even China, but have progressed further than most of their peers at the World Cup.

North Korea provided one of the top tournament’s greatest shocks by eliminating Italy to reach the quarter-finals in 1966, a magnificent feat considering the opposition, and one which saw them likened to a mythical creature.

Their intriguing nickname the ‘thousand-mile horse’ stems from their footballing philosophy in that World Cup, when the nation enthralled fans with their quick, energetic and graceful game.

Times have changed since then, however, and North Korea now employ a much more defensive, organised and taciturn approach. The East Asian outfit can still compete, though, as shown by their run to the final of the 2014 East Asian Games, where they were downed by fierce rivals South Korea.

The ‘thousand-mile horse’ also galloped to success again by qualifying for South Africa 2010, but could not replicate their predecessors’ fine run, failing to win any of their three group games.

A combination of that failure and sporting ambition seems to have inspired a fresh approach to football coaching in the Asian peninsula nation, with the newly opened Pyongyang International Football School’s aim to discover and train a new generation of North Korean stars.

Speaking recently, North Korea and Asian Football Confederation official Han Un Gyong spoke of the school and her student’s admiration of Barcelona star Lionel Messi.

She stated: “When I go to the Pyongyang international school, I ask them who do you think is the best player. They say: ‘Ah, we love Messi!’

“They read books about Messi and watch his games through the Internet. They’re selected from all over the country. Our FA goes to all the provinces and chooses them.

“But if we see they’re not developing, we send them back and choose another one.”

As for the Asian Cup, North Korea will have to rely on their current crop to best their highest ever finish of fourth in the tournament.

Pre-competition form has been strong, with two victories over Hong Kong and Guam, plus a hard-fought draw against Chinese Taipei.

North Korea will likely be relying on their tried and trusted skipper, and most prolific striker, Hong Yong-Jo, who helped guide them to South Africa in 2010.

Thailand-based Pak Nam-Chol, considered his country’s biggest talent, should also be on hand to contribute guile and goals from midfield, alongside Basel-owned forward Pak Kwang-ryong, their highest-profile star.

Neutrals will certainly be intrigued as to whether the present incarnation of the ‘thousand-mile horse’ can excel in Australia, and provide the swift and elegant style their nickname promises.