North Korea’s Battle Against Team USA

August 1st, 2012
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Yesterday the USA played North Korea in women’s Olympic soccer, with the match-up long anticipated by many Korea watchers.  Leading up to the game the media in the U.S. was still mostly focused on their own side, with little mention of the DPRK side’s footballing merit. Reuters chose to focus on the political and historical differences between the countries as a lead-in, while SB NationThe Bleacher Report and The Washington Post all released articles focusing on the latest news from the USA camp, or the possibility of changes being made to the USA line-up. USA Today looked at the team’s thoughts on playing at Old Trafford and how the players have fared on an individual level away from the pitch during this tournament. It was left to Fox News to produce an article focusing mostly on the DPR Koreans, looking at the evasive nature of players and manager during interviews, their reluctance to give any access to journalists, and even the views of USA players towards the DPRK squad. Having shared a hotel with them, it seems Team USA at times viewed the DPRK as an exotic bunch, saying that they looked happier than the last time they saw them, hoping to get eye contact, and wondering what they do for fun back home. Despite this semi-orientalist view of their opponents, the most fruitful comment of the article would be the three reasons given by the DPRK staff as to why their players never left the hotel; their strict training schedule, their enjoyment of the hotel…and the fact that it rained so much in Glasgow. Perhaps they didn’t realise that it rains almost once every two days in the city. And so to the match.

Before this game the DPRK had fallen to a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of France, an outright capitulation at this level of football. Poor marking at corners and massive weaknesses down the DPRK left meant that France romped home by the end, comfortably winning without ever having to hit top gear. The DPRK had also inexplicably made changes to the starting line-up from the side which had defeated Colombia 2-0, notably dropping two-goal hero Kim Song-Hui and retreating into a defensive formation, very much unlike the tactics employed in the run-up to this tournament. This perhaps displayed the inferiority complex of Chollima sides when competing against the top-ranked nations, and they focused on cancelling out the French rather than looking to exploit weaknesses.

The USA, by contrast, strolled to a 3-0 victory over Colombia, ensuring their progress to the quarter finals. Abby Wambach continued her scoring streak, and this was despite being punched in the face by a Colombian defender, an action which went unnoticed at the time but has resulted in a two-match suspension for the player, meaning a likely end to her tournament. All in all, the USA didn’t need to play at their best, and showed ominous form.

On the day, the most obvious tactical changes from the DPRK were the re-introduction of Kim Song-Hui in attack, with replacement of goalkeeper Jo Yun-Mi with O Chang Ran. The USA maintained a strong side, with a point required to top the group and ensure as easy a draw as possible in the quarter-finals. This meant a massive height and power advantage over their Korean opponents, a factor that told throughout the game. The DPRK had maintained their defensive line-up, with the midfield rarely flooding forward to support the lone striker. The USA comfortably kept the ball and moved forward down the flanks, making frequent use of a tactic of cutting back around the edge of the box and crossing for both Morgan and Wambach.

It took until only the 15th minute for the USA to go close, Morgan collecting a great ball about 12 yards out only to hit the post with just the keeper to beat. However in the 24th minute Team USA got the goal their domination deserved. A high ball down the middle was excellently controlled by Morgan, who took a further touch and slipped it through to Wambach, who needed only a moment to collect herself and pass it beyond the keeper into the bottom corner.

If any neutrals thought this might bring the DPRK out of their tactical shells, they were sorely mistaken. The end of the first half saw some concerted USA pressure, with the DPRK struggling to make up ground on the wide Old Trafford pitch. In the 39th minute Abby Wambach was agonisingly close to a second goal, hitting the post and watching as O’Reilly could only fire the rebound wide. Carli Lloyd then skied a glorious chance a few minutes later, lobbing the ball over the bar when one-on-one with the keeper.

As the half-time whistle blew, the stats weren’t pretty reading for the DPRK. As well as being a goal down, they were outclassed in every department, and faced a 63%-37% disadvantage with the possession. In addition, a lacklustre crowd did little to liven proceedings, with only a half-hearted chorus of ‘USA,USA!’ occasionally threatening to break out.

Perhaps the DPRK’s best spell of the match came between the 65th and 70th minute, going close on three occasions. First a ball from the left almost found Kim Chung Sim, Ri Ye Gyong then fired in their first shot on goal from an angle, and Kim Chung Sum almost found herself a hero when a through ball from the left saw her beat the offside trap, but her stretching boot couldn’t get enough on the ball to divert it goalwards.

Kim Un Hyang entered the fray in the 80th minute to replace Kim Chung Sim, hoping to provide some impetus to the attack for the goal that would secure them a quarter-final berth. As it was the momentum was immediately brought to an end as right-back Choe Mi Gyong received her marching orders for a late challenge on Tobin Heath, the red card fully merited for a series of fouls. For the final ten minutes the DPRK valiantly tried to find an equalising goal, but they just didn’t have the numbers in attack to capitalise.

In the end the USA deservedly ran out 1-0 winners in the end, and can look forward to a quarter-final berth against New Zealand, while the DPRK are on their way home to Pyongyang after failing to qualify even through a third-placed finish. The future will be uncertain for both the manager and players of the DPRK squad after such a dismal campaign. Without a World Cup to look forward to in 2015, the next international tournament they can qualify for is the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Up until then they will have only the 2014 Asian Cup to aim for, a tournament which is sorely lacking in quality teams beyond the regulars of Japan, Australia, South Korea and China. With little prospect of changing their tactical mentality, or learning from more successful international teams, it may be fair to assume that the DPRK will struggle to maintain their top 10 ranking as more international sides improve, and will see qualifying as a success rather than a step towards trophies.

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About the Author

Gerard Clare

Gerard Clare is a research student at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, specialising in issues of regionalism and centre-periphery relations in the Russian Far East, including how citizens on the periphery can identify with central representations of what it means to be Russian, and in what ways these representations may conflict with regional identities. His knowledge extends through to Russia-DPRK relations in the post-Soviet era, with particular focus on engagement, expectations and wider themes around energy and security. He has previously completed both his undergraduate degree in Central and East European Studies in 2011, and his MSc in Russian, Central and East European studies in 2012, at the University of Glasgow. He has contributed a number of articles to NKNews since 2011, looking at Russia-DPRK relations, Six-Party Talks and even football within the DPRK.

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