Ri keen to shine again
© AFP

Korea DPR captain Ri Kum Suk is surely the most experienced player in Asia, having led her country at more than 10 major international tournaments since her international debut in 1999. Ri participated in the three previous editions of the FIFA Women's World Cup, as well as two gold medal-winning campaigns at the Asian Games.

The Golden Lady, as her given name would have it, has won a deserved reputation as a first-class striker. Ri's winning goal in the 2-0 victory over Japan in the final of the Asian Championship in 2001 kick-started her illustrious career, and two years later she became the tournament's top scorer with 15 goals, as Korea DPR successfully defended the continental crown.

The North Koreans made up for their disappointing third-place finish in 2006 by taking their third Asian title last month. And apart from the fact that they had to fight back from one goal behind against China PR in the final, it was business as usual for Ri, who scored seven goals, including the equaliser in that game.

The 2007 AFC Women's Player of the Year opened her account against Thailand before adding a brace against Vietnam in the group stage. Ri's brilliance, however, was best displayed in the 3-0 semi-final defeat of Australia, in which she scored a hat-trick in 60 minutes.

Maiden voyage
Having collected her fifth piece of silverware on the Asian stage, Ri is now headed for unknown territory. Last year, she led her country to their first ever Olympic Games campaign proper, scoring no less than 12 times as Korea DPR won all six games with 51 unanswered goals in the qualifying campaign.

Ri, who turns 30 on 16 August, will be glad to celebrate her birthday during the Olympics in China, where she guided the North Koreans into the quarter-finals of the FIFA Women's World Cup last year. However, the celebrations will be a little muted if Korea DPR fail to progress past the quarter-finals, which are scheduled on the eve of her birthday.

In the group stage, Ri and Co. will face familiar foes in the shape of Nigeria and Germany. Ri has fond memories of the African champions, against whom she broke her FIFA Women's World Cup duck in a 2-0 win at China 2007, but the eventual winners Germany put her Chinese dream to a premature end by beating Korea DPR 3-0 in the quarter-final.

Although the North Koreans have never met Brazil, their second opponents in the group, at senior level, young players like goalkeeper Jon Myong Hui, midfielder Kim Kyong Hwa, and forward Kil Son Hui will take heart from their 1-0 victory over the Brazilians in the semi-final of the FIFA Women's U-20 World Cup in 2006.

So if Ri can lead by example and motivate the youngsters to shine on the world stage again, the North Koreans will surely be the team to watch at this summer's games. Their coach Kim Kwang Min is understandably optimistic about his second trip to China, but sounded a warning as well. "The Olympic Games will feature a very high level of football and strong teams, so we need to prepare well for it. We can still improve our technical and physical ability."

And as a natural-born leader, Ri understands what it takes to win games. "Football is not just about an individual's performance," said the humble No10. "It is about the team's whole performance, and any success I have had in my career is owed to my team-mates as well."