On the surface, Korea DPR seem to be on wane from the heights of 2-1 away win in their Group 2 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifying opener against the United Arab Emirates in September. They failed to maintain a one-goal lead against neighbours Korea Republic in the following test, and then went down 2-1 to nemesis Iran last month.
Nevertheless, it has been a much better start for the men from the northern portion of the Korean peninsula, who suffered five straight defeats during the final qualifying round for Germany 2006. And their top marksman Hong Yong Jo will be hoping to lead his nation to the world finals this time, and increase his tally from the eight goals he has scored so far over the course of two preliminary campaigns.
With the Koreans entering an early winter break after three matches, Hong will have to wait nearly four months to for a chance to put his name on the score sheet again. That, however, does not mean a well-earned rest for the 26-year-old workhorse, who has started in all of the nine qualifying games this year for the Chollima, as the national team is known.
Hong plays his club football at FC Rostov in the Russian First Division, following a short spell with Serbian outfit FK Bezanija. Unlike those days at his first club April 25 of Pyongyang, for whom he scored 41 goals in four seasons, Hong has had to fight for his place in the European leagues while frequently flying back home to join the national team for their South Africa 2010 qualifiers. The time change and distance has to cover is considerably greater than those of team-mates An Yong Hak or Jong Tae Se, who ply their trade in Korea Republic and Japan respectively.
There has, in fact, been signs of fatigue: Hong was uncharacteristically unimpressive during the UAE game and he was replaced in the 71st minute. His substitute Kim Kum Il made an instant impact with a neat through ball that resulted in Korea DPR's opening goal. But it took only four days for Hong to redeem himself, winning and converting a crucial penalty against Korea Republic.
From defence to attack
Therefore, the 2-1 loss in Tehran, their first defeat in 11 qualifying games for the South African finals, must have been a bitter pill to swallow for Hong, who set up Jong's 72nd minute header with an inch-perfect free-kick. The result not only pulled the North Koreans down from the top of the table but left coach Kim Jong Hun much food for thought.
Kim's strategy of "maximising the organisation to make up for our lack of individual skills, as we cannot afford to lose" worked out during the previous round of qualifiers, as Korea DPR conceded zero goals in six games. "We did not defend for the sake of defending, but it triggered our counter-attacks," Kim, who was a solid defender in his playing days, told FIFA.com.
But as the coach admits, they are now in a different situation against stronger opponents. "The most important thing for us is to score more goals," added Kim. "For that, our two attackers Jong and Hong should work in harmony with each other to progress into a higher level. We will only improve from here and all our efforts in the remaining matches will be focused on winning."
Despite the change of attitude, their next opponents are none other than the mighty Saudi Arabia. Korea DPR have never beaten the Saudis in their six previous encounters, including two defeats in the preliminary competitions for Italy 1990 and USA 1994. But having scored three goals in two games against Jordan in the third round, Hong should have no fear against the Gulf side when battle resumes in February.
Until then, Korean fans will have to wait and see if their new-look Chollima can bring about an improvement in four months' time and put themselves back on the right track.