Forty-two years have passed since Korea DPR reached the 1966 FIFA World Cup™ finals in England, where they became the first Asian side to advance to the quarter-finals by defeating Italy 1-0. Although their fairytale run came to a dramatic end with a 5-3 reverse at the hands of Eusebio's Portugal, the North Koreans' heroic performances earned them the famous nickname, the Chollima (winged horses).
However, Korea DPR mysteriously disappeared from the international stage, and only fourteen years later did they return to take part in the preliminary competition for Spain 1982. The North Koreans were eliminated in the first round, and knocked out at the same stage of the Mexico 1986 qualifiers. They went on to reach the final qualifying round for Italy 1990, but finished bottom of the six-team group, and history repeated itself four years later.
Having withdrawn from the qualifiers for France 1998 and Korea/Japan 2002, Korea DPR returned to the preliminary competition for Germany 2006. But despite topping their second stage group in style, the North Koreans fell again at the final hurdle, finishing bottom of their group.
Now the Chollima are well into their seventh FIFA World Cup qualifying mission, but the main difference between their previous attempts and this time around is that they are not mystery men any more. The North Koreans have built on the failure of the last campaign and are hoping to make that valuable experience count in order to qualify for South Africa 2010.
During the third qualifying round, coach Kim Jong Hun favoured a very defensive 4-5-1 formation. Veteran midfielder Kim Yong Jun pulled the strings from the middle of the park, along with captain Nam Song Chol and defensive midfielder An Yong Hak. This experienced trio, all of whom also took part in the qualifiers for Germany 2006, form the core of the current side.
Although their back four is comprised of relatively young players, the North Korean rearguard has been simply impenetrable: they did not concede a single goal in the previous round. In the process, 21-year-old goalkeeper Ri Myong Guk established a firm reputation as a formidable proposition between the sticks.
At the other end, Korea DPR boast one of the continent's most dangerous marksmen in Hong Yong Jo, who recently moved to FC Rostov of the Russian First Division from Serbia's FK Bezanija. The No10 has played 14 games in FIFA World Cup qualifiers (for Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010), scoring seven goals so far. Either on the right wing or in the centre, Hong triggers swift counter-attacks with his trademark through-balls and accurate crosses. He also scored three of Korea DPR's four goals this year, including a brace against Jordan in June.
Kawasaki Frontale's dynamic striker Jong Tae Se is another player who plies his trade with a foreign club. Although he has not yet found the net in the preliminary competition, Jong always poses a threat to opposition defences with his surging runs and crisp shooting. Forward Kim Kum Il, who captained Korea DPR at the FIFA U-20 World Cup last year, is standing by on the bench and waiting for his chance in the games to come.
In the final qualifying round, Kim Jong Hun is confident of maintaining a balance of flair and efficiency all the way through. And when battle commences in September, the Chollima will be eager to prove themselves true winged horses, rather than just dark horses.