As North Korea prepare for their Olympic football match against the United States (women’s match scheduled for 5pm GMT, 31 July), Gerard Clare of NK News takes a closer look at the DPRK squad and their route to the big game. Will politics influence discussion around the matchup, or will conflict truly be set aside in the beautiful game?
Media Reaction to North Korea vs. USA
Despite the heightened media coverage due to the controversial flag incident from the DPRK’s first game, in which the DPRK players refused to enter the field of play due to the big screen displaying their players next to the ROK flag, it seems the sports writers, never mind the broadsheets, couldn’t care less about the political struggles between the two countries when it comes to a game of football. Although there is the occasional reference to the DPRK in articles about Olympics football, for the most part anything dealing with North Korea’s Olympic football group focused on the USA vs. France, which in sporting terms was the big one in the early stages. Discussion in the U.S. media on the squad has so far focused on both the looks and forthcoming autobiography of their celebrity goalkeeper Hope Solo, or towards potential matches against Japan, Brazil and Germany. In essence, exactly what you would expect from tabloids on a modern sporting occasion. A solitary report from Reuters focuses on the DPRK, but even this is a look at the entire Olympic Squad from the country, not a specific focus on the football team.
Newspapers in the UK occasionally stray into commentary on the DPRK within the context of the Olympics; however it barely reaches beyond mockery and tired journalism. Reaction to the flag controversy has brought the DPRK to the fore for a day, but even this has branched off into further critical analysis of mistakes by organisers Locog, who mistakenly labelled a Welsh player as English, and who have also been hanging the USA flag the wrong way around at one of the stadiums. There seems to be no repeat of the 1966 squad, who won over the hearts and minds of Teesside. Australia only vents brief frustration at missing out on the football tournament, where they felt that the DPRK should have been banned due to the failed drugs tests. All in all, the world has other things on its mind at the present moment than wondering whether women’s football will become a proxy battleground for diplomatic failures. But then, women’s sport has rarely come to represent combat without weapons, and the men’s game traditionally receives far more hype in the context of international conflict. Or perhaps the Olympics, with virtually every country in the world represented, throws up too many interesting combinations as it is, and people just end up seeing the Games for what they really are; a commercialised theatre of sport, drama and individual rivalry.
North Korea’s Overall Chances
The DPRK made little noise about their squad for the Olympic Games. Submitting the team-sheet right on the deadline and allowing the list to come out in its own time meant that no fuss was made for the benefit of the media. So far, very unsurprising; it was already known in advance that a number of experienced players would be missing from the squad due to sporting bans, and as such some new faces were likely to be called up. Essentially, the DPRK are fielding a relatively inexperienced team, with new player Ri Nam-Sil having represented her country only once. This is in stark comparison with USA defender Christie Rampone, who with 260 caps to her name has more than the entire DPRK squad combined. Big-game experience will need to come fast for the Chollima, and the 2-0 victory over Colombia was a vital step towards progressing from the group.
This youthful blend throughout the squad may be no bad thing for the DPRK. Having failed woefully at previous Olympics and World Cups, it might be said that older legs have already had their chance. In general, North Korea have performed to a high level at previous under-age tournaments, having won the U-20 World Cup in 2006, finishing runners-up in 2008, and quarter-finalists in 2010. The U-17 squad won their age-group World Cup in 2008 and finished fourth in 2010. Both groups will be represented in the 2012 tournaments. From this, it’s clear that the production-line for female footballers is very much in good health, and it may be the perfect opportunity to blood these youngsters in a high-pressure tournament.
Match 1: Columbia
With the format for the Olympics resulting in 8 of the 12 teams progressing from the groups to the quarter-finals, expectation is high that the DPRK will at the very least reach the knockout stage, with KCNA even recently talking up their chances. Third-place in the group could see them through if other results are favourable, and as such the opening match against Colombia was likely to have been seen as the most crucial of their tournament. Previously the sides had only met once, a 0-0 draw at the 2011 World Cup. The DPRK failed to score at all in that tournament, and are hoping to erase memories of the experience with progression from the group. While the DPRK had a solid set of results in pre-tournament friendlies, Colombia were on a losing streak of six consecutive games. As it was, the DPRK prevailed 2-0 on the night and set themselves up for a massive game against France, with striker Kim Song Hui finally stepping up for the national team after a difficult few years, following her fantastic run of 5 goals in 6 games at the 2006 U20 World Cup.
Match 2: France
If Colombia went into this tournament in poor form, France were in an imperious mood; they had won every game they had played since August 2011, including a run of 22 goals for and 0 against. This included a 2-0 victory over Japan, who are amongst the favourites for the tournament. Confidence was soaring and many in the side feel this is their time to place in the medals. How they react to the defeat against the USA will go a long way towards deciding this match. While France and the DPRK have never played each other in any competition, the DPRK will undoubtedly need to play to the best of their abilities to have any chance of taking points from the game, and will be swept away if their performance dips. We can suspect France will take all three points in this game, especially given their 4-2 defeat to the USA in the opening round of matches, but with rain tentatively predicted for Saturday 28th in Glasgow, the elements could yet do the Chollima a favour and inhibit the passing play of France.
Match 3: USA
If these predictions go to form, it would set up a crucial final game for the DPRK in Manchester against the USA, ranked number one in the world, favourites for the tournament and not the team you want to face when needing a victory. History is no friend to the DPRK in this respect either; in four previous encounters, the DPRK have won zero, drawn one, and lost three. With the USA maintaining excellent form going into the tournament, the chances are that they’ll come out victorious in this game as well. As always, every streak comes to an end at some point, and other factors may help the DPRK. If the USA win their second game against Colombia to add to the victory over France, they may rest some players in anticipation of the quarter-finals. In all likelihood though, both teams will want a result from this game, and on form, history, experience and ability, the USA should win this match comfortably. Never say never with the Chollima though, every winged horse has its day.
Overall the DPRK must fancy their chances of progression to the quarter finals after their opening day victory, a game in which their more forward-thinking tactics won out. I’ll be here on NKNews to let you know how they fare as the tournament progresses.