North Korea revels in double victories in women's World Cups
FILE - In this Friday, Oct. 21, 2016, file photo, North Korea players celebrate after they winning the final game of the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup against Japan, at the Amman International Stadium in Amman, Jordan. North Korea's victories in both the U-20 and U-17 women's World Cups in 2016 show the progress the country is making as it takes on more foreign influence in coaching. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh, File)
JOHN DUERDEN, Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — In 2011, one of the more popular television series on North Korea's Central Television channel was "Our Women's Football Team", a five-part dramatization of the 2006 Under-20 World Cup triumph. After two similar tournament wins in late 2016, it may be time for a sequel or two.
On October 30, the women's Under-17 team won the World Cup in Jordan, defeating Japan in a penalty shootout. On December 3, the Under-20 side did the same with a 3-1 victory over France in Papau New Guinea. It makes the country the first to win those tournaments back-to-back and both teams were given a rapturous welcome on their return to Pyongyang.
"Sport is very important to the regime and always has been and any success goes down very well," Aidan Foster-Carter, long-time Korea watcher and Honorary Fellow at Leeds University, told The Associated Press.
This became even more important since Kim Jong Un succeeded his father Kim Jong Il in 2011.
"Kim Jong Un has been known to be interested in sport and that became even more apparent when the basketball player Dennis Rodman visited the country," added Foster-Carter. "Relations with South Korea have been pretty bad but he has sent teams to sporting events that the south has hosted."
One of those was the 2014 Asian Games, held in Incheon, near Seoul. Prior to the tournament, Kim visited the women's training camp to deliver a hand-written letter. The team took gold.
Talented children are streamed into schools with special programs and then into sporting academies. Successful stars can receive special benefits.
"Kim gives people he is proud of apartments, and that includes athletes," said Foster-Carter. "They are always looking for young talent and female soccer is particularly good."
After the latest triumph, Under-20 team coach Hwang Yong-bong was praised for his performance - described as "mysterious and unorthodox" and a "tactical genius" by FIFA's official website -- during the tournament and for his effective use of substitutes to turn games.
"I make no distinction between my starting XI and my bench. Whenever I make such switches, it's always to try to help the team," said Hwang after defeating hosts Papa New Guinea 7-1 in the group stage.
North Korea has long been a competitive team in the men's and women's games, but in the past that was chiefly due to stamina and effort. Today, that is allied to a more sophisticated tactics and training as the country now has the means to take in influences from abroad.
The North Korean government has also relaxed its isolationist tendencies and allowed young male prospects to play in Europe. Six of the starting eleven that defeated South Korea in the final of the 2014 Asian U-16 tournament had spent time in Italy and Spain.
The opening of the Pyongyang International Football School in 2013, built with $800,000 from FIFA's development program, was another landmark development. Of the 200 students who live in at the academy, which invites foreign coaches, 40% are female aged from nine to 15. The girls play in the same teams as the boys for much of the time they are in the academy.
Andrei Lankov, a Korean expert and Honorary Fellow at Macquarie University, is not surprised to see such facilities in the country.
"There is a recognition that they could use foreign consultation and to have more of their players and coaches interact with what's going on elsewhere," said Lankov. "Tactics and training methods are always evolving and they know they need to keep abreast of those changes."
"Their relative isolation is probably more costly at a sub-elite level, where regional schools and things don't have access to the internet and You Tube and other tools. The leadership clearly thinks the benefits outweigh the costs of having few exchanges with the outside world; sports being no exception."
The challenge for the triumphant women is to sustain the success up to the senior level and deliver the women's team a first World Cup title. The best showing so far is a quarterfinal spot in 2007 though the team was disqualified for the 2015 edition after two players had failed doping tests at the 2011 tournament.
Winning back-to-back youth World Cups is a great start.
"It's a feat that's never been achieved before," said coach Hwang. "I'm delighted with our victory, but we can't stop here. We have to keep on working to win more titles."