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Can N. Korea Repeat its 1966 Success in S. Africa?

Posted June. 20, 2009 09:46,   


The match took place at Ayresome Park in Middlesbrough, England, July 19, 1966. As soon as the final whistle blew, short-haired North Korean players embraced each other and jumped for joy.

Some 20,000 spectators at the packed stadium appeared momentarily dumbfounded, having witnessed the North Korean soccer team’s finest hour.

North Korea advanced to the 1966 World Cup quarterfinals with a shocking 1-0 upset of Italy, then considered the world’s strongest team, in the final match of Group 4. The North lost to Portugal, 5-3, after having led 3-0, but was as competitive as any other team in the tournament.

Among the exotic tactics used by the North was a “ladder play,” in which three players jumped to head in a flying ball.

North Korea has not played in a World Cup since 1966, but has qualified for its second trip. So attention is drawn to whether it can recapture the magic of 1966 in South Africa next year after its long absence from the tournament.

The key tactic for North Korea is its tight defense backed by its players’ strong stamina. Depending on the opponent, the team can increase the number of defenders to seven or eight and attempt speedy counterattacks. This tactic of “defense followed by counterattack” is similar to the way North Korea played in 1966.

This strategy worked well in the Asian qualifiers for next year’s World Cup. The North allowed only five goals in the eight games of the final qualifying round.

South Korea went 1-1 against the North in the final round, prompting the South’s coach Huh Jung-moo to say, “Even Manchester United of the English Premier League will have difficulty penetrating such a strong defense.”

North Korea plays leading striker Jong Tae Se backed by two agile attackers Hong Yong Jo and Mun In Ku, and this is the cornerstone of the team’s strategy to stage a counterattack after focusing on defense.

Whether such a tactic will continue to work in the World Cup is uncertain, however. Experts say North Korea will struggle if it faces a team with strong teamwork and technique in the tournament.

Chances are high that the lack of experience by North Korean players could hold the team back in South Africa. Another weakness is the North’s weak reserve players, as the skills gap is huge between those on the bench and the starters.

Nevertheless, North Korea is considered a dark horse in next year’s World Cup. In the 1966 tournament, it was considered one of the weakest teams.

SBS sports commentator Park Moon-sung said, “North Korea has no defensive slumps. There is a chance that the defense-first strategy of the team could work in the short term.”

KBS soccer analyst Han Joon-hee said, “North Korea has significantly enhanced its teamwork through playing qualifiers,” adding, “If it builds up experience through friendly matches, it can secure solid competitiveness in the World Cup finals as well.”

The coach of the North Korean team, Kim Jong Hun, said, “We are faster than the 1966 team and we can run more.”