Korea DPR once again raised quite a few eyebrows when they registered a home win over continental giants Saudi Arabia in a key battle in Asia's final qualifying round for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. The lone goal scored by Mun In-Guk proved precious for the North Koreans as it not only saw them overtake Iran to reach second place in Group B, but it also helped the nation soar twelve places to 107 in March's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
The match staged at Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Stadium on 11 February was crucial for both sides, having entered the encounter with four points each and trailing group leaders Korea Republic and Iran. The stunning result saw the unfancied home side see off their strongly favoured rivals who are 52 places above them in the global pecking order. While the win sees the Koreans just a point from topping the section, the Saudis were left languishing in fourth place, with their qualifying hopes severely dented by the result.
This is not the first time, though, that the East Asian nation have been rewarded with a double-digit climb in the world rankings for their performances in the qualifying campaign. In last June's third stage of qualifying they notched up two wins and two draws to progress to the last ten as the only undefeated Asian nation; results which enabled them to shoot up 24 places to 94th in the ranking.
Memories of '66
Since their historic appearance at the 1966 FIFA World Cup, where they swept past Italy to reach the quarter-finals, the North Koreans have been billed as ‘dark horses' whenever they have appeared on Asian scene. Despite limited international outings, which has helped make them one of the least-known sides in Asia, Korea DPR have remained a competitive team that no continental opponents dare underestimate.
The Chollima re-emerged as a force in Asian qualifying for Germany 2006 by reaching the final stage featuring eight nations. Although they crashed out after five straight losses with some disappointing performances, in part due to their severe lack of international experiences and exposure, the team showed glimpses of being able to compete against Asia's best.
The failed campaign four years ago, however, became the launching pad for new success when the team embarked on a bid to make their second FIFA World Cup appearance. Armed with the knowledge gained from four years ago, the North Koreans looked a rampant side in the opening qualifying stages and again made it to the final round showing impressive form.
The player who has gained the most hype during the campaign is FC Rostov forward Hong Yong-Jo, who has scored four times in qualifying to date. Aside from his goal-scoring knack, the 26-year-old can also play provider, setting up Mun In-Guk with a sublime backheel to secure the win against Saudi Arabia.
Added to their plethora of talents, coach Kim Jong-Hun employs a pragmatic strategy which requires the cohesive efforts by the whole team, or in his words, "maximises the organization". While this has proved to be a relatively effective approach for them, Kim stated they won't stop making progress. "We must improve game by game and our efforts in the remaining qualifiers will be exclusively focused on winning."