North Korea heading south again

Despite regular success in youth competition, why did North Korea’s top team again fail to impress at the Asian Cup? (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel,  January 15th, 2015

As always North Korea created plenty of interesting copy at the Asian Cup, although as has been the case all too frequently in recent years, they failed to make any impact out on the pitch.

The year-long suspension of head coach Yun Jong-su for his outburst after their Asian Games final defeat to neighbours South Korea saw his predecessor Jo Tong Sop reinstated just a week or so before the tournament began, then the team turned up in Australia with just 22 players – opting not to bring a full compliment of 23. Oh, and one of them, Ri Sang-chol, was also serving a three-match suspension.

Furthermore, the team’s talisman and key goal threat Jong Tae-se was mysteriously left out of the squad – seemingly because he is currently being paid by a club, Suwon Bluewings, south of the 38th parallel – leaving them looking rather tame up front.

Jo was unapologetic for his selections after his side’s second straight defeat on Wednesday night, though.

“For the main members of the team I don’t think it was a mistake not to pick An Yeong hag and Jong Tae-se,” he said. “This was our decision I don’t think it was a mistake.”

The Chollima frequently do well in the underage tournaments – winning the Asian Under 16 championship and finishing as runners-up in the U19s and at the Asian Games in 2014 – but have struggled to translate that into success at the top level in recent years.

North Korea coach Jo Tong Sop addresses the media after his side's 4-1 defeat to Saudi arabia in Melbourne, January 14th, 2015

The team has failed to progress out of its group at the last two Asian Cups, as well as not qualifying for the World Cup finals in 2014. When I asked Jo why he felt that was he cited a lack of quality.

“I think it is good that we are able to participate in the [Asian Cup] finals but I think also our skill levels are not high enough. When it comes to development it should be better and we have to make it as quick as possible to do better in the future.”

There aren’t any plans to open up the team’s conservative approach any time soon, though. “I think that a defensive strategy is very important and attacking from defending is the only way, and a very powerful and effective way, to win football matches.”

Sadly for Jo and his team that wasn’t the case here, despite taking the lead through Ryang Yong-gi – with the North Korean’s first Asian Cup finals goal in 23 years – and Saudi Arabia coach Aurelain Cosmin Olariou suggested that their opponents’ hard-running style helped the Saudis seal the 4-1 win.

“I was confident because it’s difficult to play the way that North Korea played for the entire game,” he told reporters post-match. “They make a lot of pressure in front and I know that if they play like this our ball possession would make them tired and they will concede more spaces.”

Spaces and goals were, indeed, given up, meaning that it is back to the drawing board – or maybe not – for Jo and the North Korean FA as they seek to build on their strong foundations and achieve success at Rio 2016 and Russia 2018.


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