Thursday 18 February 2016, 02:25

Rejuvenated Chollima fly high

Korea DPR have proven themselves more than capable of springing a surprise or two in Asia and beyond over the years. Save for their milestone last-eight performance at the 1966 FIFA World Cup England™. The East Asians emerged the unlikely qualifiers for South Africa 2010 when they sealed only their second global appearance at the expense of traditional heavyweights such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. Most recently, the Chollima raised eyebrows once again by leading the way in the qualifying group for Russia 2018.

Five wins and a draw across seven outings were the eye-catching results as Korea DPR dominated their section, to lead a strong Uzbekistan by a point with a game left. Even more impressive is the consistent progress they have made in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking since the qualifying campaign kicked off last June. Kim Chang-bok's side have since gained 51 places up the global pecking in just nine months, surging all the way from 146 last June to 95 this month.

Surprise packages Things did not, however, look that rosy when Korea DPR entered qualifying in the wake of their failed 2015 AFC Asian Cup campaign. The Chollima failed to progress beyond the group phase in the continental finals with three straight losses, including losing 1-0 to the Uzbeks in the tournament opener. With the Central Asians the pre-tournament favourites to win the qualifying group, 2004 Asian Cup semi-finalists Bahrain and the rapidly-developing Philippines were among the hopefuls in what had been anticipated to be one of the most competitive groups.

As it turned out, Kim's side began with a bang and a 3-0 victory over Yemen. But awaiting them next were none other than Uzbekistan, a tough opponent against whom they had never won. Spurred on by the home crowd, however, Korea DPR triumphed 4-2 in unexpected fashion in Pyongyang as they emerged as unlikely pace-setters. The ranking reward for their performances was evident as they moved 17 positions to 129 last July.

They continued to excel by edging Bahrain 1-0 and despite being held to a goalless draw by Philippines at home, they bounced back to defeat Yemen by a solitary goal as they extended their lead to four points. Korea DPR would suffer their first and only loss in Uzbekistan as the hosts came from a goal down to avenge their opening defeat with a 3-1 home victory. But the Chollima quickly put the disappointment behind them when they returned to winning form with a 2-0 home victory against Bahrain last November as they maintained their dominance in the group.

The qualifying results provided the major driving force as Korea DPR rounded off last year with another double-digit move by climbing 15 positions from 120 to 105 last December. With no matches played during January they dropped eight places, but February's edition saw them among the world's best movers of the month with a significant 18-place climb as they stormed into the world's top 100.

Rejuvenated team The ranking move gave Korea DPR a timely boost heading into next month’s group concluder against hosts Philippines. A victory would seal their progression as group winners if Uzbekistan, with a game in hand, lose either of the remaining two outings. Even a second-place finish would likely leave the Chollima progressing as one of the best runners-up.

With Korea DPR on the very verge of progression, what makes their supporters even happier is the emergence of their youth talents. As a matter of fact, they are among the tournament's youngest squads featuring as many as eight U-23 players. Notable among these promising stars is 22-year-old striker Jong Il-gwan, a former AFC Youth Player of the Year who has been on target three times, including twice scoring the match-winning goal over the two legs against Bahrain.

Also catching the eyes is his striking partner Pak Kwang-ryong - one of the team's three overseas-based players - who is plying his trade with Swiss side FC Biel-Bienne. Captaining the side is experienced custodian Ri Myong-guk, a survivor from their South Africa 2010 squad. With Kim's new-look team beginning to gel, there are increasing expectations from Korea DPR fans of booking a third FIFA World Cup qualification.