SYDNEY (AFP) – North Korea’s latest flirtation with the Asian Cup threatens to be a brief and potentially tempestuous one with their coach banned over a fist-shaking rant against officials.
The North’s footballers famously became media darlings by stunning Italy 1-0 to reach the World Cup quarterfinals in 1966, returning to Pyongyang as national heroes.
But they could struggle in Australia after Yun Jong-Su was suspended for one year by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for venting his spleen after losing to hosts South Korea in the final of the Asian Games last October.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has led a propaganda drive aimed at transforming the isolated country into a “sports superpower”, Kim himself bestowing tactical advice to athletes and coaches on how to bring glory to the state.
North Korea will be making only their fourth appearance at the Asian Cup, the secretive communist state first entering the competition in Kuwait in 1980, where they were beaten in the semi-finals by bitter rivals South Korea.
They face a tough Group B opener against Uzbekistan in Sydney on January 10, before games against Saudi Arabia and China, but the absence of Yun will inevitably cause problems three months after their silver medal at the Asian Games.
His tirade of abuse against match officials, after South Korea scored a stoppage-time winner, unsurprisingly incurred the wrath of the AFC, who also banned player Kim Yong-Il for six months for serious misconduct as the red mist descended.
North Korea will hope Swiss-based pair Pak Kwang-Ryong and Cha Jong-Hyok can help steady the rudder, but the fear is the side could implode as they did at the 2010 World Cup when a 7-0 pummelling by Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal capped a miserable tournament.
Pyongyang frequently lavishes cars and apartments on athletes who bring glory to the state, but media reports claimed the players and coaching staff who flopped in South Africa were subjected to a six-hour public inquisition for “betraying” North Korea’s ideological struggle and punished by being sent to work on a building site.
North Korea crashed out at the group stage at the 2011 Asian Cup but caretaker coach Jo Tong-Sop, who also led the side in Qatar, expects improvement from the side, despite the turmoil surrounding his successor.
“Physically we weren’t up to standard last time,” said Jo. “It is important for us to show we have developed and improved on the weaknesses of our side in 2011.”