Yesterday, North Korea (or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea if you wish to be precise, but also a bit loony) qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, courtesy of a 0-0 draw in Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia.
That's right, the country the Western world currently likes the least is heading to the world's biggest sporting event and will play in a blaze of publicity supporting Kim Jong Il and his Korean Worker's Party. And in spite of their current FIFA World Ranking of 106 it appears the team does have some skill, although how this turns out against the planet's best teams is yet to be shown.
Memorably (even for those of us who weren't there) North Korea knocked Italy out of the 1966 World Cup after beating the Azzurri 1-0 at Middlesbrough's old Ayresome Park. In the quarter-finals of that competition the team proceeded to take a 3-0 lead against Portugal after just 25 minutes, but were slowly worn down in a 5-3 defeat. Portgual faced England in the next match and lost to a brilliant Bobby Charlton double.
However, this present North Korea side has thusfar in qualification shown a bit more defensive nous, conceding just 5 goals in their 8 final qualification matches. Along with the Saudis, Iran and South Korea were also in Group B. Not world beaters, but in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) this still represents a stern test, and the North Koreans finished second.
FIFA and the organizers of South Africa 2010 are not going to be sleeping with ease as there is a chance of the two Koreas being drawn together in one of the World Cup groups. If FIFA continues with its seeding system of using past World Cup performance combined with present ranking, South Korea (who reached the semi-finals in 2002) will probably be in the second pot and the North will be in the fourth pot; this enables them to be drawn together. The draw takes place in Cape Town on the 4th of December later this year.
The reason why the organizers are keen to avoid a showdown of the Koreas is not that difficult to explain. Apart from the traditional tension that almost literally separates the two nations, there was the recent incident when the two teams first faced each other in this qualifying period, a game slated to be played in the northern capital, Pyongyang.
Governmental intervention in the North forbade the playing of the southern national anthem and the raising of its flag. Eventually, the tie was played on neutral ground in China (not that neutral?) and the game ended 0-0.
However, what does this mean for the world as a whole when everyone arrives in South Africa next summer? Is it a good thing that a team representing one of the most secretive nations on Earth - a country currently posturing about war, lying about missile tests and generally being a diplomatic pain in the ass while at the same time committing human rights abuses in its own land - be present on the biggest of sporting stages, oddly enough in a country previously shunned in sporting terms for its own Apartheid regime?
I can't really answer those questions, I don't know enough about North Korea and what its own peoples are going through. One wonders what would happen if they drew Italy again and beat them? Surely the game has moved on in 44 years, but perhaps it always stays the same...
By the by, if you're interested in seeing who might qualify for the World Cup and how likely that is, here is a very interesting stats site.