Korea DPR may have suffered an early exit in Asian qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, however, the South Africa 2010 finalists, under coach Yun Jong Su, salvaged a measure of pride by retaining the AFC Challenge Cup after edging out Turkmenistan 2-1 in Monday’s final.
Victory in Asia's second-tier competition also brings with it qualification for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup where Korea DPR join hosts Australia, reigning champions Japan and Korea Republic at the 16-nation continental showpiece.
Featuring largely the same line-up that played in their failed qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014, the Chollima opened their title-defense with a 2-0 defeat of the Philippines, before seeing off inaugural champions Tajikistan by the same scoreline. Yun's side went on to run riot against a disappointing India, putting four unanswered goals past the side whose 2008 triumph secured passage to last year’s AFC Asian Cup.
Even a fast-developing Palestine caused few problems in the semi-final, with Pak Kwang-Ryong striking in each half as the Koreans prevailed 2-0 to set up a final re-match with Turkmenistan. Two years ago the central Asians had proved to be a massive test for Korea DPR, who narrowly won the tournament finale only with a penalty shoot-out victory, after the two sides were locked 1-1 after extra time.
In what turned out to be a similarly hard-fought game, it was again spot kicks that separated the two teams. Turkmenistan captain Berdy Shamuradov opened the scoring after only two minutes, but Jong Il-Gwan headed home the equaliser for Korea DPR ten minutes from the break to leave the game on a knife-edge. The former Soviet republic missed a golden chance as national goalscoring hero Shamuradov fired a penalty over with six minutes remaining. However, Jang Song-Hyok made no such mistake from the spot three minutes later for the tournament winning goal.
Yun cut a relieved figure as he reflected on the hard-fought victory. "I wasn't concerned about the early goal because we had plenty of time to get the equaliser," he said. "After we drew level, I thought the winner would come sooner or later as we dominated the match. I wasn't nervous and I was always confident my players could deliver."
A tale of two underdogs
Korea DPR’s success aside, the tournament was marked by the emergence of the Philippines and Palestine, both of whom impressed during their respective group campaign by finishing runners-up en route to the semi-finals. In doing so the south-east Asians, under renowned German coach Michael Weiss, took their pool by storm stunning India 2-0 in their second outing, before knocking out Tajikistan 2-1 to book an unexpected place in the last four.
Palestine, for their part, overcame hosts Nepal 2-0 in the opener before holding Turkmenistan to a goalless draw. A 2-0 triumph over Maldives saw them finish the group phase level with Turkmenistan on seven points, only to trail behind on goal difference.
I think third place is a result we truly deserve.
While Palestine struggled against Korea DPR in the semi-final clash, Weiss’ Philippines cause a major scare for Turkmenistan, who needed two late goals to ensure a 2-1 win. Despite the near-miss, the Askals didn’t finish the tournament empty-handed as they downed Palestine 4-3 in the third-place play-off, with forward Phil Younghusband twice on target to earn the tournament’s golden boot award with six goals.
Whipping boys even on the regional stage, the Philippines bronze-medal performance did raise quite a few eyebrows across Asia. For coach Weiss, it was the team's hard work during his past year in charge that paid off. "I think third place is a result we truly deserve," he said. "I should thank my players for their never-say-die attitude and we must also salute our fans across the world for their support. Without them, what we have achieved would have been impossible."