April 1 is a time for playing practical jokes on friends, colleagues and neighbours but few were laughing at the Korean Football Association (KFA) in Seoul when the South Korean team was drawn in the same 2010 World Cup qualification group with North Korea for the second time in less than a year.
Any novelty has long since worn off. On the pitch the two teams have met four times in the past 14 months with four tedious ties to show for it. Off it, the KFA has grown weary of the preparations and negotiations involved ahead of any game with the team from north of the 38th Parallel.
There may not be much fun in store in Seoul World Cup Stadium tonight but officials will be smiling if South Korea finally defeats its northern neighbor. To do so would be a huge step in the direction of South Africa as this is the biggest meeting yet.
It is not going to be easy. The visitors arrive in fine Data Hk form and are currently top of Group Two with ten points. South Korea are second with eight, though has played a game less than everyone else, Saudi Arabia are third with seven, Iran then have six with UAE cut adrift with a single point.
With South Korea inactive last weekend, the Chollima were busy defeating UAE 2-0 in Pyongyang. It was another solid performance. DPRK has lost just once in qualification, an unlucky 2-1 setback in Iran. The team are improving game by game and are full of confidence.
“Compared with before, North Korea is attacking more aggressively,” said South Korea coach Huh Jung-moo.“We have been playing well though and we just need to give our good build-up play the right end-product.”
The ultimate end-product is the World Cup but if that was not motivation enough, there is more. With relations off the field less than good, North Korea’s players would be hailed as heroes in Pyongyang should they win at Seoul World Cup Stadium.
It is possible, the UAE result not only put the team top, it has put the pressure firmly on the shoulders of the host. A draw would be accepted by the visitor and now the team can play its normal game, sit back, defend in numbers and counter-attack at speed and basically, see what happens.
Jong Tae-se is the spearhead of that attack and is another North Korean missile that is feared in Japan. He was born, raised and plays in the Land of the Rising Sun. Known as the ‘People’s Rooney’ in Seoul, after the tempestuous Manchester United striker, he has struggled for goals of late and is desperate to impress in the homeland of his parents. But if Jong is not scoring then the likes of Hong Yong Jo and Mun In Guk are becoming equally well-known.
If Jong is, though he refutes the comparison, similar to the Manchester United star, South Korea has a star that really does play for the English, European and World champions. Park Ji-sung was one of the first of seven overseas players to return home and played the first half of last Saturday’s friendly 2-1 warm-up win against Iraq in Suwon. It was a decent performance against a fairly disinterested opposition though Korea really should have scored more.
Park is not too concerned.”The fact that North Korea are in first place is not something to be especially concerned about. More important is that if we can play in an organized fashion then we can get a good result,” Park said at the weekend.
Results are what it is all about. Performances are not important at this stage. Three points for either team would put them in sight of South Africa. That would be a seventh straight appearance for South Korea but North Korea has made it only once – in 1966.
Then, in England, the team shocked the world by defeating the mighty Italy. It remains as the greatest result in the nation’s football history.