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FIFA U-17 World Cup: North Korea face Niger in battle of the underdogs

North Korea’s reclusive team will aim to make their experience in FIFA U-17 World Cup count when they take on Niger in Group D, where Brazil and Spain are favourites to qualify.

fifa-u17-world-cup-2017 Updated: Oct 06, 2017 20:37 IST
Bhargab Sarmah
Bhargab Sarmah
Hindustan Times, Kochi
North Korea will take on Niger in their opening game of the FIFA U-17 World Cup on Saturday.
North Korea will take on Niger in their opening game of the FIFA U-17 World Cup on Saturday. ( )

When a North Korean team takes part in an international sporting event, it draws plenty of curious observers. Athletes from the reclusive nation rarely speak to the media except in formal press conferences.

That practice remains in place for the North Korea team taking part in the FIFA U-17 World Cup here as well. The North Korea U-17 team, placed in Group D with Brazil, Spain and Niger, has been shielded from the media.

The preparations were shrouded in secrecy to such an extent that until the North Korean football federation submitted the name of its new head coach with the 21-member players’ list, it wasn’t clear who had replaced their banned head coach, Yun Jong-su.

When asked at the pre-match press conference about his team’s preparations, new coach Kim Yong-su said the team played seven matches against local clubs, who played teams of older age groups.

(Read | FIFA U-17 World Cup: DPR Korea look to get rid of ‘underdog’ tag)

Looking to make experience count

However, with four previous appearances in the U-17 World Cup, North Korea are no strangers to the tournament and will be determined to prove a point when they face Niger in their opening Group D game at the Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium at 8 pm on Saturday.

Last year, their showing at the AFC U-16 Championship impressed many observers. They went on to reach the semifinals, where they lost to Iran on penalties.

(Read | FIFA U-17 World Cup: Heavyweights Brazil and Spain face off in Group D opener)

However, they also courted controversy in the group stages after goalkeeper Jang Paek-ho was found guilty of deliberately conceding a goal in the loss against Uzbekistan. That result meant they avoided Iran in the quarters and instead faced Oman, whom they defeated on penalties.

Jang and head coach Yun Jong-su were banned for a year. Kim Yong-su, a former national team player, has taken over as the new head coach. With a talented squad at his disposal, he will aim to spring a few surprises in the tournament.

“The teams at the AFC U-16 Championship last year were similar - offensive teams. Brazil and Spain are very strong, and individually players are quite good as well.

“The first match of the tournament is very important. Our aim is to reach the Round of 16. Even though Brazil and Spain are very strong, we can do so if we give our best,” Yong-su told reporters here.

Midfielders Kye Tam and Kim Pom-hyok played crucial roles in the team’s run to the semis of the AFC U-16 Championship last year, and will hope to make a similar impact here. Striker Ri Kang-guk will spearhead the attack.

Captain Yun Min, another important player in the side, was in attendance at the press conference as well. Seemingly uncomfortable being in front of the camera, the young player was asked about his favourite footballer. “Messi of Argentina,” he replied.

The North Korean contingent was also asked whether the country’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un had a message for them. The question, however, did not elicit any response.

(Read | FIFA U-17 World Cup: Despite preparatory hiccups, Kochi geared up)

Niger’s first entry

Niger are playing in a World Cup for the first time. Despite their lack of experience at this level, there is no dearth of confidence.

Midfielder Abdoul Karim Sanda told Hindustan Times his team’s objective is to win the World Cup, while head coach Tiemogo Soumalia too said winning the title was his dream.

(Read | FIFA U-17 World Cup: Sachin Tendulkar, cricket greats wish Indian team the best)

The team’s optimism is not misplaced. Having knocked out defending U-17 World Cup champions Nigeria on their way to qualifying for the U-17 African Cup of Nations, Niger went on to reach the semifinals of Africa’s showpiece event.

They went down to mighty Ghana on penalties in the semis, but their showing underlined the talent in the squad.

“We started training in Niger once we qualified for the World Cup, before playing local teams in Niger. Then we went to Algeria and Morocco to continue our preparations,” coach Soumalia said at the pre-match press conference here on Friday.

“We will play according to the styles of different teams. We have watched videos, observed different teams’ styles of play. We are ready to adapt,” a confident Soumalia added.

Abdoul Nasser Mahamane Bello couldn’t hide his pleasure at being the captain of the first ever team from Niger to play at a World Cup.

“Being the captain of the first Niger team to play WC is quite grand. I’m quite happy. I’m going to give my best as a teammate. As a group, we will give it our best shot,” he said.

Leading the line for Niger will be Ibrahim Boubacar Marou while Abdoul Karim Sanda and Sofiane Habibou are Niger’s midfield engines.

With the presence of Brazil and Spain in the group, both North Korea and Niger will be aware of the importance of this game.

A loss on Saturday will leave either of the two sides with a mountain to climb, in terms of qualification to the Round of 16, while a win could help secure at least third place.

First Published: Oct 06, 2017 17:45 IST

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