North Korea looking for redemption in Asian Cup

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North Korea looking for redemption in Asian Cup

DOHA, Qatar - North Korea will try to redeem itself at the Asian Cup this month hoping to banish bitter memories of a humiliating World Cup and emulate the achievements of their all-conquering junior teams.

North Korea, reviled on the world political stage, opens its title quest in Qatar against unfancied United Arab Emirates on Jan. 11 in Group D, which also includes regional heavyweights Iran and reigning champions Iraq. Attempting to second-guess anything related to the world’s most secretive country is no easy task.

But football is hugely popular in the communist country, whose under-16 and under-19 teams won their respective Asian titles this year, underlining the potential the regime can churn out despite severe financial constraints. There were reports that the hard-line North Korean leadership was furious at the senior side’s capitulation at the World Cup in South Africa, where the team impressed in losing only 2-1 to Brazil in their opening game.

But the wheels came off in spectacular fashion when Portugal humiliated them 7-0, before losing 3-0 to Ivory Coast. The North Koreans finished at the bottom of the group and went home to an uncertain fate without a single point to their name. But they will be more comfortable in Qatar, where standards will not be as high.

Iran’s manager Afshin Ghotbi expects the Koreans to be stubborn opponents.

“North Korea will make life difficult for every team, just like they did for Brazil at the World Cup in South Africa,” he said. “They are compact in defense and that will be a challenge for every team .?.?. they also can be dangerous on dead balls and on the counterattack.”

Prolific striker Jong Tae-se - dubbed “Asia’s Wayne Rooney” for his combative style - is expected to again lead North Korea’s frontline. Jong averages a goal every other game for a defense-minded North Korea.

German second division side VfL Bochum snapped up the Japan-born 26-year-old after he impressed in South Africa. Jong’s fast start to life in European football is boosting his reputation as one of Asia’s most fearsome predators. Fellow forward Hong Yong-jo, the North Korean captain who plays in Russia for FC Rostov, is another to look out for.

Despite decent striking options, North Korea will rely on a tried-and-tested defensive formation that served them well in making their first World Cup since 1966. They enjoyed a bye to the Asian Cup after winning the AFC Challenge Cup in February, stumbling past Turkmenistan 5-4 on penalties in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo to earn a ticket to Qatar.

North Korea has been preparing for the Asian Cup in Egypt, where the team suffered a 2-1 defeat to fellow qualifiers Kuwait in a low-key friendly. Following their opener against the U.A.E. - a game the North Koreans will fully expect to win - they play Iran on Jan. 15 and Iraq four days later in a group that looks like one of the tightest at the tournament.

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