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Steep learning curve for North Korea

Reclusive North Korea were banking on the surprise element at the World Cup, but it didn't work out that way as they faced a steep learning curve.

sports Updated: Jun 26, 2010 16:42 IST

Reclusive North Korea were banking on the surprise element at the World Cup, but it didn't work out that way as they faced a steep learning curve.

Isolated on the global stage, the team travelled to South Africa for only their second World Cup appearance after their extraordinary performance in 1966 - where they reached the quarter-finals - with an intriguing air of mystery swirling around them.

They lived up to their reputation with restricted media access and political questions banned from press conferences. This soon sparked rumours that four players had defected after the official team sheet for their tenacious 2-1 defeat to Brazil listed them as absent.

It all proved to be baseless as a full squad showed for their next outing against Portugal, a match that exposed why they are ranked 105 in the world with an embarrassing 7-0 defeat.

The loss ended any hope they had of progressing and a 3-0 defeat to Ivory Coast sent them packing without a single point.

The bulk of their squad play for domestic clubs in North Korea, better known for its nuclear weapons programme and dubious human rights record, but a handful ply their trade overseas.

This includes star striker Jong Tae-Se, who plays in Japan and was the only team member allowed to speak to the press other than coach Kim Jong-Hun.

He admitted they were out of their depth. "We regret the results, but there was a real gulf in class between us and our opponents," he told fifa.com.

"Now we have seen what the top players and teams are capable of. They definitely possess an edge over us mentally, physically and technically."

North Korea's 34 shots yielded just one goal and Jong said they needed to be more clinical if they are to compete at this level.

"While the rivals could capitalise on their technical superiority to score goals, we were unable to do so," he said. "Our lack of elementary skill made it impossible to win. We must work harder to improve."

While speculation has raged as to what might face the North Koreans when they return to their homeland, it is not all doom and gloom.

Coach Kim said it had laid a solid foundation for the future. "For the next World Cup what we have to do is get our players to improve their individual abilities, be stronger mentally and stronger physically, move faster, strengthen our strong points and get the right balance between attack and defence," Kim said.

"If we manage to do that our team will be well prepared for the next World Cup."

"I believe although we did not have good results here it has laid the foundation for us to grow in the future," he added.

"It was a very useful experience for us and a wonderful opportunity to grow football-wise."

North Korea's appearance in South Africa was a minor miracle in itself. They came from nowhere to storm into the Asian zone's final round of qualifying, where they defied sizeable odds to take one of the continent's four automatic spots at the World Cup.

Despite losing all three games, their return to football's top table marks an upswing in their fortunes.

Football is the country's most popular sport but Pyongyang's leadership banned the national squad from travelling abroad after losing to arch-rivals Japan and South Korea in qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup.

They returned to international football at the Bangkok Asian Games in 1999 but did not compete in qualifying for the 1998 World Cup in France or 2002 in South Korea and Japan.

And the world is set to see more of them is coming months, with Huh's men having reached the finals of the 2011 Asian Cup, which are played in Qatar in January.