By Luis Bueno, SI.com
Ri Myong-Guk had 10 shutouts in qualifying to help North Korea reach the World Cup for the first time since 1966.
Frank Perry/AFP/Getty Images
Through April, SI.com will profile two World Cup teams a week. We continue with North Korea. Click here for the full archive.
Goalkeeper Ri Myong-Guk could determine if his team is competitive or gets blown out of the water. The 23-year-old had 10 shutouts in qualifying and helped North Korea form an impenetrable wall in the back.
Forward Jong Tae-Se, dubbed "North Korea's Wayne Rooney" by media is the team's most explosive threat. He's joined by forward Jong Chol-Min is a veteran of the 2005 U-17 and 2007 U-20 World Cups. Jong Chol-Min scored four goals in qualifying, a team-high total matched by Russian-based forward Hong Yong-Jo.
Ryang Yong-Gi, who is based in Japan, scored four goals in the AFC Challenge Cup, including two in a match against India, to help North Korea win the championship this year. The midfielder appeared in only one World Cup qualifier.
Like Ryang, midfielder Pak Song-Chol rarely played in qualifying, with three appearances. But the 22-year-old's deft foot on set-pieces could be vital to success in South Africa. He scored two free-kick goals in the AFC Challenge Cup.
What to watch for
North Korea had the unfortunate luck of drawing a trio of behemoths. In Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast, North Korea faces three teams that have the potential to make a deep run in the tournament. It will have to play mistake-free football, or the punishment might be severe. North Korea must play up to its defensive strengths (it typically fields a 5-3-2) in order to have any chance. During qualifying, the North Koreans allowed the third-fewest goals, with five in eight games; only Australia and South Korea yielded fewer. Their lack of experience in big international events could be an asset, as opponents will not be familiar with their players and style.
North Korea does have a little history in succeeding as a decided underdog in the World Cup. In 1966, its only other World Cup appearance, North Korea eliminated Italy 1-0 in the final game of the first round and advanced to the quarterfinals. North Korea nearly pulled off another shocker in the quarterfinals, taking a 3-0 first-half lead on Portugal before giving up five unanswered goals, including four from the legendary Eusebio.
Key match in group stage
June 15 vs. Brazil. If North Korea can somehow pull off a seismic upset -- and even a draw would be considered a huge shocker -- then it might have a bit of a say in how the group turns out. A lopsided loss, though, could set the tone for a short stay.
Celebrity scouting report: Daniel Gordon and Nick Bonner*
A focus on defense has been evident for the last few years. They are not a team who tend to score many goals but they rarely concede either. Sadly it is not possible to win the World Cup by just not letting in goals though! ... Team captain Hong Yong-Jo has played abroad for several different clubs and obviously has a lot of experience even if the leagues he's played in have not been the best in the world. ...The teams they have been playing against over the past couple of years, with the exception of South Korea who never seem at their best when playing the North, have not been the caliber of Brazil, Portugal or Ivory Coast. Although North Korea are very solid in defense, they may not be able to resist sustained attacks by these teams and, as they tend to tackle hard players like Drogba and Ronaldo who are well known for either their lack of balance or cynical diving (whichever way you want to see it), opponents could very well capitalize on this in the penalty box. ... Even optimistically speaking [a repeat of 1966] is unlikely; in 2002, when China qualified for the World Cup many people in Beijing were claiming that a victory over Costa Rica was certain, maybe even a draw with Brazil was possible. This was a step over the line from wishful thinking into downright fantasy. It seems like the best that DPRK fans can hope for is that their team gives a good account of themselves and does their best. People in Pyongyang will be happy with that. A giant-killing though would put them on the map and immortalise the team for ever! ... No one expects anything from them, yet this is football: you never know. It is plausible that they may get a thumping from Brazil (like they did against the Soviet Union) then draw one, win one, and hey -- presto -- they're through! ... They will show non-stop commitment, they will fight to the death and their fitness will be 110 percent, but whether they will prove to be tactically naïve as they were in 1966 remains to be seen.
* British filmmakers Daniel Gordon and Nicholas Bonner made the 2002 documentary The Game Of Their Lives about the surviving members of North Korea's 1966 World Cup team. They've just remastered a 1978 feature film from North Korea called Centre Forward that will be available this year. As told to Bryan Armen Graham.