x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

N Korea on level playing field

After a night of some stinginess in Riyadh, it has been decided that Korea will become whole again in South Africa. At least for a few days.

After a night of some stinginess in Riyadh, it has been decided that Korea will become whole again in South Africa. At least for a few days. South Korea and North Korea will participate at the World Cup finals next June. In the great global news digest, the name of North Korea has some corrosive connotations, but in football, it is a nation at one with itself.

Appearing at the finals will invoke memories of gilded times. North Korea downed Italy in England 43 years ago, and were three ahead against Portugal before losing 5-3. The Black Panther, Eusebio, blackened their hearts in the quarter-finals, but new memories are on offer at a time when North Korea's name in international climes is as black as their leader Kim Jong-il's hairdo. North Korea's pursuit of a place at the finals began in what felt like a Turkish bath against the UAE in Abu Dhabi last September when they constructed a 2-1 win built on stringent defence. It concluded in the sauna of Saudi on Wednesday. Temperatures in the 40s and almost 70,000 home supporters could not dissuade them. They can afford to let off some steam after the 0-0 draw.

They have a star on their country's flag, but few stars of any note. It is an appreciation to negate sides and break with purpose that has allowed North Korea to qualify for the finals from Asia in the company of South Korea - who they drew with twice in qualifying - Japan and Australia. To the outside world, they remain a pariah nation, a communist country of nearly 24 million people, a state wincing amid widespread poverty, an inward looking place famously identified by a sitting US president in George Bush as being part of an axis of evil. They are a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, to paraphrase Winston Churchill's evaluation of Russia in the 1930s, but North Korea's players are not a tepid lot.

In the week that was, the South Korean President, Lee Myung-bak, and the US President Barack Obama spoke in Washington of how they will not be kowtowed by North Korea's nuclear threats. Perhaps they will settle their differences on the football field. Iran beat the USA 2-1 at the 1998 World Cup finals. What chance a North Korea-USA match in South Africa, one wonders. Ri Myong-Guk is the name of the goalkeeper who swatted away the best intentions of a Saudi side who could yet qualify via a play-off system.

While they may be shunned by the international community, they are going to world sport's biggest festival. It almost reminds one of the time the Zimbabwe President and international pariah, Robert Mugabe, attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005. His presence was defended by officials claiming you do not turn a black sheep of a family away because they are a black sheep. On sporting grounds, North Korea cannot be discouraged.

In turning up for a World Cup finals, they have hardly picked a shackled party. Saudi Arabia can reach the finals by defeating Bahrain in an Asian play-off that will then carry them into a final qualifier with New Zealand in October and November, but North Korea have a year to outline their plans. In a football sense, at least. @Email:dkane@thenational.ae