In the space of 12 days, Korea DPR have come a long way at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup 2008. As they prepare for their semi-final encounter with England, it is hard to believe this is the same side that struggled to hold their own against Ghana in their opening match.
Despite taking the lead at the QEII Stadium in Christchurch, they were soon pegged back, and were hanging on by the end. "That was a tight game," admitted coach Ri Un Ham at the time to FIFA.com. "We need to make progress all over the park if we intend to win our next matches."
And progress they most certainly have. Costa Rica were edged out 2-1 before a 1-1 draw against Germany secured the Koreans' passage to the knockout stages. There, the Asian champions stepped up another gear altogether by routing Denmark 4-0.
Following their quarter-final success, coach Ri paid tribute to his improving side. "It wasn't easy, but I had confidence in my players. They have been working very hard, and hard word reaps rewards."
The players certainly deserve their share of the credit for the emphatic win, but Ri too for his careful planning. "I knew that the Danish goalkeeper isn't tall. That's why I said to my players to shoot often from distance, and to do so with confidence." It is no coincidence, then, that three of the Koreans' goals came from shots from outside the penalty area.
In any case, Ri prefers to focus on his own side. "Player for player, the European sides are stronger than us, especially physically and technically. But my players, and those of Asian teams generally, have better team spirit. That may be why the three Asian teams all made it out of the group stage."
There can be no denying Korea DPR's emergence as a major player in women's youth football. Coach Ri's side became the first from his homeland to win the AFC U-16 Women's Championship back in March 2007, a title that came on the back of the country's even more impressive unbeaten triumph at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Russia 2006.
Korea DPR are unbeaten so far at New Zealand 2008 too, so how does Ri explain his country's relative lack of success at senior level? "I don't really know. Physique is more important at that level. We have ground to make up for sure. We need to build on the results we're getting at youth level and transfer them to the senior stage."
For the moment though, Ri has one goal in mind: "We always approach tournaments with the aim of reaching the knockout stage. Then we take each match as it comes." With the quarter-final safely behind him, Ri now has his sights set on Thursday's crunch semi-final.