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Sep 9, 2007

North Korea a tournament dark horse

SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea rarely allows its less-than-average men's soccer team to participate in international tournaments. The secretive Stalinist state has no such qualms about its high-performing women.

Although the men are ranked No. 127 and didn't enter the recent Asian Cup, the women are No. 5 and have a chance of winning the fifth edition of the Women's World Cup, which opens Monday in Shanghai.

North Korea has been crowned champions of Asia in 2001 and 2003, but has yet to make an impact in the biggest tournament. Appearances at the 1999 and 2003 World Cup both resulted in first-round exits.

North Korea won the Under-20 World Cup last year, thrashing continental archrivals China 5-0. A number of players from that triumph will be in action in the three-week World Cup.

Kim Kwang-min is the coach charged with turning youth success into full-blown glory. But it will not be easy. The North Koreans have been drawn in Group B, which contains exactly the same nations it did in 2003: Sweden, Nigeria and the United States.

The toughest obstacle is presented by the United States, tournament favorites, two-time World Cup winners and FIFA's No. 1-ranked team. Sweden is No. 3 and was the beaten finalist four years ago. The top two teams will advance to the quarterfinals.

No strangers to controversy in the world of soccer and elsewhere, North Korea was at the center of a storm even before the draw. FIFA exempted the team from the draw and simply "placed" it in Group B. This prompted accusations it was done in an attempt to ensure that it couldn't face host China until the semifinals.

The controversy only has added to what already was certain to be a highly charged game in the western city of Chengdu when the Koreans play the Americans on Sept. 11.

Not only are they political rivals, the pair also has history on the field. The United States has defeated North Korea in the last two World Cups, 3-0 on both occasions, the only meetings between the two. The North Koreans are keen for revenge.

North Korean players have seemingly inexhaustible reserves of energy, pressure their opponents all over the field and attack quickly and in numbers.

Striker Ri Kum Suk was the star of the Asian competition and found the net five times in four games in Australia, performances that earned a nomination for the 2006 FIFA women's player of the year. Now captain of the team, a repeat performance of Ri's 15 goals in the team's 2003 Asian Cup win would be welcome.

Great things are expected from Ho Sun Hui and Kim Kyong Hwa, who have made the step up from the Under-20 team. In midfield, much of the work is done by the dynamic Kim Yong Ae, a strong and creative attacking player.

FIFA officials will be hoping the Asians behave with more decorum than they showed after the semifinal of the 2006 Women's Asian Cup.

The team was defeated 1-0 by China in the semifinals of the continental competition. Denied a last-minute equalizer by the Italian referee, goalkeeper Hye Yong Han kicked the official and teammates Son Kyong Sun and Song Jung Sun threw bottles at other officials, as well as the Australian spectators.