As the clock ticked over into the 106th minute of the first quarter-final at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup 2016, the rising number of stray passes indicated that Korea DPR and Spain’s energy levels were ebbing away fast. Suddenly attacking midfielder Kim Phyong Hwa took matters into her own hands by chesting down a punched clearance from goalkeeper Mariasun, taking two steps and steering the ball into the bottom right corner from 18 metres out to give the North Koreans a 3-2 lead and fire them into the semi-finals.
"In that moment I had to decide whether I wanted to dribble or shoot,” the matchwinner told FIFA.com after the final whistle. “Normally I like to cut into the box with the ball at my feet and outplay the opposition, but this time shooting was exactly the right thing to do."
The length of time it took to determine a winner was a surprise in itself. Korea DPR led 2-0 after half an hour thanks to goals from Ju Hyo Sim and Ri Hyang Sim in the 18th and 30th minutes. While La Rojita were equal to their opponents throughout the encounter, experience counted for the North Koreans for much of the first half against a Spanish side making their first appearance in the knockout stages of this competition.
The European qualifying runners-up initially seemed stunned after conceding the second goal, before Nahikari Garcia gave her team fresh hope with a 38th minute strike. It came as no surprise when Spain’s Lucia Garcia netted the equaliser midway through the second half as the Asian side wobbled after the break, despite Kim’s insistence that we “never stopped believing in ourselves”. This belief may have been the deciding factor in their eventual victory.
Despite their win, Kim was extremely critical of her team’s performance, as was her coach Hwang Yongbong. "We didn’t play well in the second half,” he said, “but I was confident that we’d score one more goal than Spain. Before extra-time I told my players that we needed to concentrate 100 per cent until the final whistle, and if we could do that we’d get our chances and score."
The 19-year-old is already playing in her third World Cup in Papua New Guinea, having previously represented her country and gathered valuable experience with the U-17 and U-20 teams in 2012 and 2014 respectively. "It certainly helps if you’ve already experienced something like this and are familiar with certain situations,” she said. “You don’t get nervous so quickly that way."
Both of her previous World Cup adventures have ended in defeat at the hands of France, once in the final and another time in the match for third place. The 7-6 loss on penalties in the U-17 tournament showdown in Baku was a particularly bitter disappointment.
While the Asian side could meet their old European adversaries again here in Port Moresby - preferably in the final on 3 December – both teams still have a long road ahead of them. Les Bleuettes face defending champions Germany for a place in the last four, while North Korea now face a wait to see whether they will play Mexico or USA in their semi-final on Tuesday.
"I’m very happy that our tournament isn’t over yet,” Kim said. “We want to fulfil the high expectations and hopes of all North Koreans, hopefully by winning the title."