Dark horses at full gallop
Ahead of the FIFA Women's U-20 World Championship Russia 2006, few people knew a great deal about the Korea DPR team and fewer still would have expected them to reach the semi-finals.
Be that as it may, captain Hong Myong Gum tells FIFA.com that she is not surprised at all that they have come so far. "I knew that the European teams and Brazil were very strong, but I always believed that we were stronger."
Four wins from four games, and a goal difference of 12-1 provide eloquent support for that claim and next up are Brazil, on 31 August at Moscow's Lokomotiv Stadium.
"Brazilian football is very popular back home and we have lot of respect for their team, although to be honest I've not seen them play yet. But I think that we'll cope ok," reflected the Korea DPR skipper.
The Koreans did not concede a single goal during their three group games. In fact, the only team to breach their goal so far have been the French in the quarter-finals , but even then a hard-earned strike was not enough to bring them victory.
Hong, though, is in no hurry to reveal the secrets of Korea DPR's defensive prowess. "What kind of secret would it be if I told you about it?" she asked, breaking into laughter for just about the only time in the interview.
The Korean players and their coach are not, in truth, natural conversationalists. Compared with the lengthy responses and light-hearted banter that you find in the Australian, Chinese, American or Russian camps, for example, the Koreans, though polite, tend to be restrict their responses to a couple of words. For a journalist, that might not be ideal, but then Korea DPR did not come to Russia to chat; they are here to play football, and that is clearly something they do rather well.
Holders first to fall victim
Aside from their convincing 4-0 victories over Mexico and Switzerland - neither of whom are considered top teams in the women's game - Korea DPR have also claimed the scalps of two of the game's biggest names.
Their 2-0 victory over Germany provided the tournament's first major upset, and meant that the Germans had to settle for second place in Group C and a quarter-final match against the USA , which they lost
Korea DPR's next victims, in the first knockout round, were France. Les Bleuettes battled bravely and even managed to find a way past Jon Myong Hiu, but when it counted, it was Hong Myong Gum who made the difference. In the 90th minute, with only seconds of regular time left on the clock, up she popped to dispatch an unstoppable header into the French goal.
"I wasn't even thinking about scoring," said the defender, replaying the moment in her mind. "That game against France was the hardest of the lot. They are a top-class side, with a winning mentality."
Watching Hong's assured performances at the back, the way she covers for her fellow defenders with her immaculate positional sense, it is hard to believe that the 20-year old has only recently started playing in this position. "When I started playing football, I was a striker. But I'm not very fast, so two years ago I switched to defence," reveals Hong, who plays her club football for Amrokgang.
Appearing in a world championship is first and foremost a chance for players and teams to show what they can do, but it is also a chance to find out more about others. However, as yet, the Koreans have been either too busy or too focussed on their own performances to follow any of the other teams on the TV.
This was evident when Hong was asked which teams at the tournament she had enjoyed seeing, and reeled off the following list: "Germany, Mexico, Switzerland… and I really liked France." All of the teams, in other words, that Korea DPR have played and beaten so far!
On 31 August, we will find out just how much she likes Brazil.