Spotlight falls on Korean enigmas
© AFP

The pace at which the women's game has evolved ensures that little has remained static since the last FIFA Women's World Cup in 2003. Yet if there is one aspect of the global showpiece that has stayed utterly unchanged, it is the sense of mystery that surrounds the team from Korea DPR.

This might be more understandable were we dealing with one of the tournament's outsiders, but in addition to being ranked the fifth-best side on the planet, Kim Kwang-Min's team are considered by many within women's football to be genuine contenders for the game's top prize. Indeed, while Germany and USA can undoubtedly be described as the principal pre-tournament favourites here in China, it is the North Koreans who have emerged as the most popular tip as tournament 'dark horses'.

If there is a reason that such a talked-about side remain largely anonymous, it is simply that the only people at China 2007 not discussing Korea DPR's prospects, predictably, are the Koreans themselves. As with their class of 2003, Kim and his squad appear to have subscribed to the adage that 'self-praise is no recommendation', leaving their rivals to speak for them.

Aussies in awe
Leading the tributes have been Australia, who since their admission to the Asian Football Confederation have witnessed at first hand the sequence of spectacular successes chalked up by the continent's increasingly dominant force. Monday, for example, marked the anniversary of the first and most remarkable of those triumphs - a first-ever world title at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup, sealed with a thumping 5-0 final win over China - while the intervening months have seen three separate Asian championships claimed in some style.

Korea DPR's most recent emphatic statement of intent came in last month's qualifiers for the Women's Olympic Football Tournament, when the Aussies were left in awe of a side whose final group goal tally of 51-0 smashed all existing tournament records. Tom Sermanni's Matildas had entered the preliminary campaign with high hopes after reaching the quarter-finals at Athens 2004, but their bid to reach Beijing was always destined for failure after back-to-back 2-0 defeats by their Korean rivals.

"Sometimes you're simply beaten by a better team," was Sermanni's candid and gracious admission after the second of those. "At the moment, I would say that Korea DPR are probably as close to being unbeatable as any women's team that I have ever seen."

High praise indeed and Sermanni recently followed it up by naming North Korean talisman Ri Kum-Suk alongside Marta and Birgit Prinz as the player most likely to make a major impact at China 2007. The Australia players were every bit as impressed, veteran skipper Cheryl Salisbury telling FIFA.com: "If there's to be a dark horse other than ourselves, I think it will be North Korea. Technically, they're superb and they're also tremendous athletes, so they'll definitely be a team to watch."

'Anything's possible'
Korea DPR may remain best known by their AFC rivals, but admiration for Kim's charges is by no means contained within one continent. In Europe, for example, Norway coach Bjarne Berntsen has said that while Germany and USA's big-tournament experience could give them the edge in China, their status as favourites is coming under threat. "We had North Korea watched at the U-20 World Cup and they really impressed us, both physically and tactically," said Bernsten. "If they carry on progressing like this, anything's possible."

While the publicity-shy North Koreans continue to shun the limelight from their base in Chengdu, there can be no doubt that they will consider it a matter of national pride that this 'golden generation' improve on the first-round exits made by their predecessors in 1999 and 2003. They could hardly have it any tougher, though, with their bid to escape from arguably the competition's most formidable section beginning with a match against USA, familiar foes who inflicted 3-0 defeats at the group stage in 99 and 03.

No-one, however, doubts that the Americans will face a considerably sterner test at this edition, with US coach Greg Ryan quick to laud the Koreans as "a great team". "It will be a pivotal game in our group," added Ryan. "They have been the best team in Asia for the past few years."

Kristine Lilly, meanwhile, hinted at a potential classic in Chengdu by recalling the sides' last meeting at USA 2003. "The one thing I remember about Korea DPR was that they threw a lot of numbers forward. At one point I think we saw four people on the front line, so I know they will be coming strong at us." Talented, focused and enduringly enigmatic, Korea DPR will certainly go into China 2007 determined to mount a vigorous assault on Germany's crown.