17 for 2017: The Game of Their Lives – South Korean Women Triumph in Pyongyang

Yoon Deok-yeo has been managing the South Korean women’s national team for 4 years. In a national team set-up that feeds off of the crumbs fed to it by the Football Association, success is measured in piecemeal. The WK League’s futility must be ignored and accepted, in the hope that its best players will go to the stronger leagues in Japan, or America, or Europe. The wider public’s lack of interest must be ignored and accepted, in the hopes that when it counts, people will care. Losses against local rivals must be ignored and accepted, in the hope that one day that one victory will be savoured.

As such, this is a story that went ignored by so many outlets – the broader Korean media, football fans on Twitter, and even here on this very site. Let’s talk about when the South Korean women did the unthinkable – and eliminated North Korea from the Women’s World Cup… in Pyongyang.

Some context. Though traditionally South Korea has dominated the men’s scene in football compared to their northern brethren, in women’s soccer it is the communist regime that has had the upper hand. 3 times champions of the Women’s Asian Cup, 3 times champions of the Women’s Asian Games, quarter-finalists in the 2007 Women’s World Cup, and current holders of both the U-17 and U-20 women’s world cups. North Korea’s women’s soccer system has reaped more rewards, gained more plaudits and is more reputable in the communist regime. The Bleacher Report’s James Montague, in North Korea:

Everyone drills it into the corner as the army cadets march and sing patriotic songs. The girls are far more accurate than the boys. “I’ve been teaching for five years, and the girls are better than the boys,” Chong [a local soccer coach] says when he takes a break. “They have won medals. They have won finals.”

The two Koreas often go head-to-head in numerous competitions at the senior level, because of the gulf in quality between the “Big 5” in Asian women’s soccer (China, Japan, Australia, and both Koreas) as well as the high number of competitions and qualifiers involving the top countries. However, South Korea has never won against North Korea, always playing second fiddle in every competition and tournament they take part in.

In 2015, South Korea qualified for their second ever Women’s World Cup, largely thanks to a tournament expansion, going from 16 to 24 countries. Drawn in a tough group with Brazil, Spain and Costa Rica, the Taeguk Nangja managed to come-from-behind against Spain to win 2-1 in their final group game – enough to send them to their first ever knockout stages.

Students of Kim Il-sung University cheer on the North Korean team.

North Korea, meanwhile, were absent from both the World Cup final and the Asian qualification. After several members of the team were tested positive for doping at the 2011 edition – they claim that it was deer musk gland extract, a rare Chinese remedial medicine, that triggered the positive diagnostic – the North Koreans were expelled from participating in the 2015 qualification process. Missing out on two consecutive World Cups, and the prize money that comes with it, would be a huge blow to the North Korean program. That’s why they offered to host one of the qualifying groups for the Asian Cup, which would in turn serve as a qualifier for the World Cup.

As the AFC’s 5 best teams qualify for the marquee event in women’s football every cycle, it seemed only logical that all five “top” Asian sides – North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Australia and China – would easily qualify both to the Asian Cup, and to the World Cup. However, the draw for the Asian Cup qualifying threw a wrench into plans. The AFC made the controversial decision to not seed the North Koreans given that they had not participated in the previous tournament (because of the aforementioned ban), and with only one team from each qualification group making it to the Asian Cup, there was a risk that the Koreas could draw each other, leaving one of Asia’s titans to be dropped at the qualification phase of the qualifying tournament for the World Cup.

Nobody wanted it to happen, but fate doesn’t listen to feelings. The stage was set – at the very first step towards World Cup qualification, either South or North Korea would have to bow out. And what’s more – every match would be played at the intimidating Kim Il Sung Stadium in Pyongyang, a first Korean Derby in the North in any national level of football.

The odds were stacked against the South Koreans from the very start, but the side exuded confidence and self-belief. The same tenacity showed by the Korean women in Canada, when they bitterly clawed their way back against a Spanish side cruising to the knockout stages to steal victory from defeat. The same courage of Kim Jung-mi, the veteran South Korean goalkeeper, gone down not once but twice in the Round of 16 after colliding in the air while claiming corner kicks, her cheekbones bruised and battered. The same “tuhon” of the whole Korean side to pick themselves up after conceding 2 goals in 8 minutes against tournament favorites France and give the French women a run for their money. When they said in pre-game interviews “This time, we will win in North Korea”, it was that tenacity, courage and tuhon that spoke in them. The inner strength and moral fibre that showed all the signs of a team ready to go to war – and win.

And so they went to war. In women’s football, the national team is everything. The WK-League couldn’t hold a candle to qualifying for a World Cup and playing against the world’s best. Cut off from the outside world in the hermit kingdom, knowing that their national team career rode on winning this group and eliminating North Korea on home turf – the ultimate humiliation – the Taeguk Nangja came out in style. In their first game against India, they took no prisoners, winning 10-0. Chelsea’s Ji So-yun scored a brace. More importantly, they had scored 2 more goals than North Korea, who had beaten the Indians 8-0 just two days ago. With the only feasible group winners being either Korea, goal differential was equally as crucial. Coach Yoon Deok-yeo promised that they would score buckets of goals and play a full 90 minutes against every opponent, even if they are facing a minnow – the stakes were too high.

But for goal differential to play its part, everything depended on the result on April 7th. The South Korean ladies marched out to a hostile crowd of 50,000 North Korean supporters packing Kim Il-sung Stadium, all chanting, “Glory to Kim Jong-un!”. The Aegukka rang out to tense silence across the stadium, something that has only happened once before in North Korea, at a continental weightlifting meet. And then, the roar of the crowd, for which the South Korean ladies were only prepared thanks to several training sessions in Paju with loud-speakers blaring YouTube videos of Kim Il-sung Stadium’s intimidating, echoic scowl. Remember, women’s football garners crowds in the dozens in both countries, and neither side was really prepared for the intimidating atmosphere.

Outside of those spectators in the stadium, it was hard to tell what the game had looked like. Bits and pieces are chopped off from post-match replays, and some YouTube videos showing the full match mysteriously were taken down. A more recent search finds the KFA hosting a 60 minute highlight video, but the video quality is questionable and there is no audio to call out the players’ names. The game was not shown live on South Korean television, and abbreviated highlights were played on state broadcaster KCNA in Pyongyang.

What we do know now, months after it all happened, was that the first half was advantage Chollima. North Korea won an early penalty, heroically stopped by the indefatigable Kim Jung-mi, but they eventually capitalized on their early momentum in the 45th minute with a Sung Hyang-sim tap-in. South Korea’s comfortable defensive attitude had to be replaced by something more potent and aggressive in the second half, and for a side that has struggled in the past, and appears to continue to struggle today with stringing together passes in possession against a ferocious press (parallels between men’s and women’s football?), it was hard to find a way back. But football is a marvelous sport, where phases of domination and control can be undone with pure fortune. The crowd’s ear-bursting roar was met by a silent shriek when Jang Sel-gi scored a fortuitous equalizer in the 76th minute, an off-balance cross taking a deflection before finding itself into the back of the net.

On this night in Pyongyang, the South Koreans would not write the history books and win their first game against North Korea. But they withstood the agonizing pressure and sent the crowd home as orderly and silently as never before. When the final whistle blew, it was the South Koreans celebrating the result, and the North Koreans crumbling to the ground, upset. It was now a race to most goals, and the team that scored the most would eliminate the other.

Trumpets?

At 8:00pm on April 9th, it looked as though North Korea had a slender advantage. They had just disposed of Uzbekistan 4-0 and were +17 with no more games to play. South Korea had only managed 1 goal in 60 minutes against Hong Kong and were +11 with a tie against Uzbekistan up next. But an explosion of late goals – 5 in the last half hour – meant South Korea were home free. They were +16, and only had to beat Uzbekistan 2-0 to complete their epic journey. Typically, it was Ji So-yun who scored that crucial second goal against the Uzbeks, ranked 41st in the world. It finished 4-0. The job was done. North Korea were out, South Korea were through.

When national media caught wind of the news, it made the evening headlines. Though all celebrated the side’s victory, many mournfully commented on the regretful fact that a united Korean team would have been infinitely stronger at the World Cup. But unification is for another day. On that day, the team returned home to cheers, greeted by many new fans having heard of their exploits. They have a clear road next April in the Women’s Asian Cup, and even if they do not beat any of the perennial Asian powers – China, Japan or Australia – they can still make France 2019 with wins against Vietnam and Jordan.

It remains still a long journey for women’s football in South Korea, but step-by-step, in 2017, the Taeguk Nangja took one giant leap forwards.

About Tim Lee 280 Articles
The maple syrup guzzling kimchijjigae craving Korean-Canadian, eh?

5 Comments

  1. Great article but just want to make one clarification on the WK League. Futility just simply isn’t the right way to describe it. Although parity is still elusive and Icheon Daekyo just folded, the structure of the league is healthy and teams are getting added. In addition, the players all get paid decent wages that allow them to be full-time professionals. In comparison to the NWSL, the WK League pays better wages and this is why foreign players like Beatriz and Thais Duarte stay in the WK League over going to the NWSL. The quality of the league needs to improve but the league is on stable footing.

    • Futility… I guess meant in the sense that though women’s football observers may care about the league, the casual fan in Korea doesn’t. It is futile in the public interest as compared to, say, the NWSL.

      • I don’t know, there are certainly good fanbases in the NWSL but to say the casual fan in America cares about NWSL more than the casual fan in Korea cares about the WK League is hard to say. I think a lot of the support for women’s soccer in the US is directed towards the USWNT and the NWSL doesn’t get that same support.

        • Fair. I still think the NWSL probably is more popular. I hear more about the NWSL than the WK League – I can name you at least 3 NWSL teams but maybe 1 WK League team. Though that’s hardly proof, it’s just my ignorance. Nonetheless, I think we’d both agree that the WK League gets very little love… that’s what I meant to say.

          • Yeah, I definitely agree that the NWSL is more popular and the WK League doesn’t get enough love. What we should take heart about is that the product on the pitch is good enough to keep advancing Korean women’s football forward. Hopefully qualifying for World Cups more consistently will help the WK League continue to grow.

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