If the fairytale last-eight finish in the 1966 FIFA World Cup™ is anything to go by, Korea DPR are destined always to carry the tag of formidable "dark horses".
When the Asian outsiders were crushed 3-0 at the hands of the Soviet Union in the opening match, few gave them a chance of being more than tournament whipping boys. But playing with never-say-die spirit, they drew against Chile 1-1 before stunning Italy to advance into the last eight. In the quarter-final clash against Portugal, the Asian underdogs took an amazing three-goal lead with just 22 minutes gone. However, Portugal and their world-class striker Eusebio roared back for a 5-3 victory, with Eusebio netting four.
This result remained the highlight for Asian teams on the global stage until it was surpassed by their southern peninsula neighbours who reached the semi-finals as co-hosts at Korea/Japan 2002.
Since then the North Koreans have made relatively little impact on the international scene. Their last appearance in a FIFA World Cup qualifying final round in 2005 was a big disappointment, as they were knocked out with five straight defeats and only a single win.
The current Korea DPR team, under coach Kim Jong-Hun, is composed of home-grown players as well as Korean players who were born and bred in Japan, with Ahn Yong-Hak the best known. He figured prominently in the squad that played in the qualifying round for the previous FIFA World Cup and will continue to play a key role with the team.
Korea DPR opened their qualifying campaign for South Africa 2010 with an 9-2 aggregate win over Mongolia, a team they crushed 7-0 in a friendly in June. From there they went on to impress in the third stage by pulling off a 1-0 win over Jordan on the road before keeping Korea Republic at bay for a goalless draw in the second game.
Despite a disappointing 0-0 draw in Turkmenistan on the third matchday, Korea DPR secured their place in the final round with two successive victories over the Turkmens (1-0) and the Jordanians (2-0) at home. The final group game against southern neighbours Korea Republic was to be no more than a friendly affair, as the Koreans shared the spoils again.
In fact, the North Koreans boasted the meanest defence in the competition, with goalkeeper Ri Myong-Guk recording six clean sheets in the third round. Jong-Hun's tactics of "maximising the attack and defence" proved effective in the qualifying final round as his charges surpassed the likes of Saudi Arabia, Iran and United Arab Emirates to qualify behind group winners Korea Republic.
Given the calibre of their opponents, the Koreans' road to South Africa 2010 was a bumpy one. One of the toughest tests came in the penultimate match, when they played host to Iran. The Iranians threw everything forward to break the deadlock but coach Kim's side were equal to the task and kept them at bay for a precious goalless draw. Needing a point against hosts Saudi Arabia in the closing game to book their return to the global showpiece after 44 years, the East Asians defended gallantly again for a full 90 minutes to cap their successful campaign with a 0-0.