Quiet Koreans a big hit
© Foto-net

To the victors go the spoils, yet even after their defeat on Saturday at the Wuhan Sports Center Stadium, Korea DPR did not go home empty-handed. Despite a 3-0 reverse against reigning champions Germany in the first quarter-final match at China 2007, the North Koreans' sharp, incisive football and never-say-die attitude won the hearts of the fans in Wuhan, where their every touch was greeted by cheers from the enthusiastic crowd.

Having caught the eye of the world's media and won over the local fans with a stirring 2-2 draw with USA in their opening game in Chengdu, Kim Kwang-Min's team had the supporters on their side throughout the matches that followed - a 2-0 win over Nigeria and subsequent defeats against Sweden and Germany.

In Tianjin, where they lost to the Swedes, a crowd of locals gathered early to greet the players as they arrived at the ground. Twenty-year-old student Shan Zhehe, who attends the Tianjin University of Finance and Economics, explained his backing for the Koreans, saying: "I support Korea DPR because the strength and character they showed really moved me. Their country may not have as strong an economy as ours, but we can all learn a lot from their spirit."

Liu Yun, a civil servant, was also in the crowd for last Tuesday's match and he chose to highlight the Koreans' technical ability and entertaining playing style. "They are well-drilled tactically, their teamwork and level of mutual understanding is excellent, and they play much more attractive football than the American and European sides," he said.

If their hard-running performances have impressed those watching in the stadiums, they will not have surprised Tian Yan, who works in the hotel in Tianjin where the FIFA Women's World Cup teams were staying. She saw at first hand the Koreans' dedicated training schedule and explained: "Korea DPR start training at 5am every day, running around outside the hotel. We have a lot of teams staying here, but only Korea have kept up their daily dawn-training routine."

Shedding some light
Given the air of mystery surrounding the North Koreans, suggestions of a draconian training programme may not surprise some outside observers yet a conversation with the squad's general manager, Kim Jong-Su, helped shed a degree of light on the progress made by the team in recent years. "In Korea DPR, women and children of all ages enjoy playing football," he told FIFA.com. "The country has over 2,000 professional female footballers, and we have our own league with over 30 clubs. On top of this, women's football attracts enormous government support."

The players, Kim explained, work with their coach for around four hours a day. "Football is not like other sports, there are certain rules you have to follow," he said. "Our performances are down to a combination of our coach's wisdom and the players' strength of will." He might also have added their youthful energy given the Koreans - world champions at U-20 level last year - were one of the youngest teams on view here in China: remove the squad's five survivors from the last FIFA Women's World Cup and the average age was just 21.

Explaining the Koreans' preference for a low profile, Kim touched on the coach and players' reticence when dealing with the media. "Our coach isn't against doing interviews per se, he just prefers not to because he feels they can be distracting," he said. "We came to China to do our best at this tournament, and we aimed to do our talking out on the pitch. Therefore, before the competition there was very little we felt needed saying."

The Korea DPR players also preferred the quiet approach when it came to relaxing away from football. Whereas other squads went on shopping trips, they took walks together in more peaceful surroundings. "We believe that we can only compete to the best of our ability if we conserve our energy for when we need it," said Kim."Shopping does not help anyone to relax. On the contrary it merely distracts the players' attention, and is an unnecessary waste of players' physical and mental strength and energy."

In keeping with their low-key approach, the Korean players left the stadium quietly after the final whistle had blown in Wuhan, leaving the victorious Germany players to celebrate sealing a semi-final spot. They may have said goodbye to China 2007, but Korea DPR can look back on their displays with justifiable pride. As well as underlining their status as an emerging force at the very highest level of women's football, the sound of the Chinese fans cheering their every touch will surely live long in their collective memory.