Trophy helps North Koreans soar
© AFP

March's AFC Challenge Cup in Nepal provided an ideal opportunity for Asia’s developing teams to showcase their progress, and a number of them did exactly that with double-digit climbs on the latest edition of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Topping the list were Korea DPR, who dominated the tournament throughout en route to the retention of their title.

Consequently, the North Koreans received a double reward. Indeed, the achievement secured them an automatic spot at the AFC Asian Cup 2015, and catapulted the Chollima up 25 places to 86th on the global ladder, leaving them just ahead of Turkmenistan as the biggest movers in April.

Korea DPR entered the Challenge Cup seeking redemption, having suffered an early exit on the road to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Pitted against Asian champions Japan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the continent's third qualifying round, Yun Jong-Su's side gained only four points from their four opening fixtures, which left them out of the running with two games to spare and as the only member of Asia’s four South Africa 2010 participants to miss out on the final stage of qualifying.

In the previous edition, two years ago, with their first team preparing for the FIFA World Cup, Korea DPR sent a youthful reserve outfit yet still emerged winners following a penalty shoot-out victory over Turkmenistan in the final. Determined to rebuild their lost credibility, though, they arrived at Kathmandu nearly at full strength.

The midfield maestro remained their Japanese-based star An Yong-Hak, who is plying his trade with J.League champions Kashiwa Reysol, while two teenagers in Pak Kwang-Ryong from Swiss side Basel and 2010 AFC Young Player of the Year Jong Il-Gwan formed the spearhead. Bossing the rearguard was captain Ri Kwang-Chon and in between the sticks was Ri Myong-Guk, who put in outstanding displays as his side edged the likes of Iran and Saudi Arabia to make it through to South Africa 2010.

Blessed with talents as such, it was little surprise that Korea DPR made light work of the group stage. Back-to-back 2-0 defeats of Philippines and Tajikistan were followed by a 4-0 demolition of 2008 champions India, before they fired another two unanswered goals past Palestine to set up a final re-match with Turkmenistan.

The central Asians proved to be their first real test as Korea DPR conceded their first goal in the tournament only two minutes into the match, when their opponents went ahead through skipper Berdy Shamuradov. However, Jong Il-Gwan drew the holders level on 36 minutes and shortly after Shamuradov missed a penalty on 85 minutes, Jang Song-Hyok coolly sealed the contest with a spot-kick.

Pak the rising star
While the whole Korea DPR squad impressed as a team, catching the most attention was midfielder Pak Nam-Chol who scored three times as he earned the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award. Having featured predominantly in all their three games in the last FIFA World Cup, the 26-year-old continued his emergence on the international stage, scoring the only goal against Tajikistan before netting the match-winner against a qualified Japan as they recorded two spirited victories despite elimination in Asia’s qualifying for Brazil 2014.

He would maintain his prolific form into the AFC Challenge Cup, scoring in all three group matches as they cruised to the last four. Despite tasting the Asian laurels for a straight second time, Pak was still lamenting their failed efforts in the FIFA World Cup qualifying.

"Of course I am happy to win the MVP award," he said. "But the most important thing is that the team became champions and qualified for the next Asian Cup. You obviously can't compare the Challenge Cup with the World Cup though, because the latter brings together the world’s best teams. The emotion is rather different."