Of the three Asian teams that will be there, South Korea, Japan and North Korea, the last is an unknown quantity. Mysterious and inaccessible, North Korea is staying in Zimbabwe for the duration of the tournament, the only team of 32 to do so, a choice that angered the local population because its military has been involved in training government troops.
For coach Kim Jong-hun, ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s football-loving dictator, deserves the credit for his team’s qualification because he put money into the team and provided it with advice on tactics that won matches.
Too bad that the North Korean dictator did not tell the coach about FIFA rules when he tried to add extra striker, Kim Myong-Won as one of the three mandatory goalkeeper places in the 23-man squad. Kim, who might have dreamt of scoring goals, now will have to try his best at not letting any get into the net.
North Korea’s star player is Jong Tae-se who plays in Japan where he was born. With a chance of choosing between three countries, Japan, North Korea and South Korea, he picked the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Still, ever optimistic, he believes that, “With Brazil, we can make it”.
North Korea, nicknamed Chollima or winged horse, is set to make its debut on 15 June against Brazil. No bookmaker is betting on Kim John-hun’s team, which is ranked second to last. A victory against the South American powerhouse would pay 500 to 2,000 to one. Unlike the men, North Korea’s women footballers are at around the top of FIFA ranking, fifth, and the under-19 team even took the Asian Cup in 2006.
South Korea, which featured prominently in 2002 when the Cup was played at home, is the Asia nation with most participation. Park Ji-sung, of Manchester United, is its prize player.
Known as the ‘Taegeuk Warriors’, the South Koreans have the most competitive national league in Asia. However, despite their success in the Asian Football Confederation and having the best national team, coach and club, a victory is a long shot, at about 250-300 to one.
In the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea Japan, the South Koreans made it to semi-finals, sinking first Italy and then Spain, but in the consolation final, they lost to Turkey. In South Africa, their first match will be on 14 June against Cameroon.
At its fourth participation, Japan has potential but one that has not yet been fully tested. Shunsuke Nakamura and Keisuke Honda are the best players. Coach Takeshi Okada predicts a spot in the semi-finals save for the fact that the Samurai Blue are ranked fourth to last. For bookmakers, the Japanese have a 250-300 to one shot at winning. First match is on 12 June against Greece.
China and Cambodia are not at the finals, but they are concerned about illegal World Cup betting, and planned to crack down on gamblers. Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen went on record, warning football fans to stop illegal gambling.
Mainland police are set to crack down on World Cup gambling. Back in March, they raided two online gambling rings, a month after starting a six-month anti-gambling campaign to stop online betting.
As the final stage of the FIFA world cup gets underway, Thailand is organising its own World Cup 2010 but for players behind bars at Klong Prem Central Prison, in Bangkok. Inmates will play a day before the calendar of their more famous football colleagues.
The event was made possible by Thailand’s Corrections Department in co-operation with the Football Association of Thailand, the Sports Authority of Thailand and the Tourism and Sports Ministry.
South Korea is the Asian team with the most participation, eight times, followed by Saudi Arabia and Japan (four times). Iran and Australia have made it to the final phase three times—The Aussies are in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
This year, North Korea qualified a second time for the Cup. China, the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia (present in 1938 as the Dutch East Indies), Israel, and Kuwait have been a onetime participant in the final phase. Since 1994, Israel has however been a member of UEFA.
Even India qualified once, in 1950, but its team never went it because FIFA refused to allow its footballers to play barefoot.