A matter of hours away from their first game at the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2011, when they will take on host nation Mexico in the tournament’s opening match, a remarkably tranquil atmosphere reigns in the Korea DPR camp. Of course, only the players themselves really know how nervous they are, but on the surface at least, there are no signs these youngsters are preparing for arguably the biggest game of their lives.
Not that their coach An Ye-Gun has lost sight of the significance of this encounter. “It’s the opening match and we’re playing the host nation, so we know how much it means,” he told FIFA.com. “But the reason it’s so important to us is that it could shape the rest of our group campaign.”
An knows exactly what he is talking about, thanks to his experience as coach of his country’s U-17s two editions ago at Korea 2007. At that tournament four years ago, the North Koreans picked up a respectable 1-1 draw with England in their opening group match and went on to qualify for the Round of 16 as one of the best third-placed sides. However, that lowly group position meant they crossed paths with eventual runners-up Spain, who defeated them 3-0.
Even so, coach An is not embarrassed to admit that he has not seen Saturday’s opponents in action. “We’ve never watched any of Mexico’s games, but given the circumstances I’m sure they won’t be short of motivation. I think this game will be hard but fair, and that all the players will give their all. We’re hoping to put on a great show for the fans.”
When quizzed on how he feels Group A will pan out, the experienced supremo does not pull any punches concerning the size of his charges’ task. “I rate the Netherlands and Congo as the strongest sides from their respective confederations, but we believe in ourselves too. According to our calculations, we’ll need at least four points to reach the knockout stages, so that’s our primary objective.”
Just as in 2007, Korea DPR failed to make it past the first knockout phase at Peru 2005 – their first appearance at the showpiece event – when they went down in the quarter-finals against Brazil. “It wouldn’t be bad if we could finish in the last eight again, but we’ll see how things pan out,” said An, without wishing to be drawn on a prediction for this time around.
That said, despite missing out on qualifying for Nigeria 2009, Korea DPR go into Mexico 2011 bursting with confidence after winning last year’s AFC U-16 Championship. “There’s no doubt that [being Asian champions] puts pressure on us, since you’re representing a whole continent not just your country,” said An, as the conversation drew to a close. “But we’re here to keep learning and improving, and to help these lads become genuine prospects in the near future.”