Football: Asian Cup too soon for improving young North Korea

(REUTERS) - North Korea's traditional goal at the Asian Cup has been to show heart, determination and perhaps spring a shock win over neighbours South Korea and Japan to trumpet to fans back home.

However, with the country's leader Kim Jong Un pushing hard for sporting excellence on the global stage, glorious failure may not be enough this time around.

Replacement coach Jo Tong Sop knows that while his side are unable to compete with the big guns of Asian football in terms of talent, the typical North Korean traits of aggression, work rate and organisation could get them through the group stage.

The North have been placed in Group B for the opening round of the Jan 9-31 tournament in Australia alongside Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and China.

North Korea's job has been made harder no thanks to a 12-month ban meted out to regular coach Yun Jong Su for his behaviour after their loss to South Korea in the Asian Games under-23 final in October. Jo was called in to lead the side in late December.

The North first entered the Asian Cup at the 1980 tournament in Kuwait, where they qualified second from their group and lost 1-2 to South Korea in the semi-finals.

They have appeared at only two finals since then, after failing to qualify or choosing not to enter.

The North were also banned from the 2007 tournament after the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) suspended them for "improper conduct" during the 2004 qualifying tournament.

North Korean immigration officials refused entry to the visiting Jordan team, saying they did not have the correct visas. The AFC awarded Jordan a 3-0 win, suspended North Korea for one year and banned them from the 2007 Asian Cup.

Since taking power following the death of his father Kim Jong Il in late 2011, the young North Korean leader has been at the centre of a state propaganda drive to turn the isolated country into a "sports superpower".

He has rewarded medal-winning athletes with luxury apartments, entertained flamboyant NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman, and even tried his hand at coaching.

Choi Dong Ho, a South Korean journalist covering North Korea, told Reuters that Mr Kim had shown a keen interest in soccer and a school had been set up to develop talent.

"After the school was set up around 40 young players were sent to Spain and Italy for coaching," said Choi, adding that the North was focusing its investment on the youth system. The result, he said, was that the North's young players were making a huge impact on Asian competitions.

North Korea won the AFC under-16 Championship in September, beating the South in the final, and were runners-up to Iraq in the under-14 Championship a month earlier.

"I believe there will be significant progress in North Korean soccer over the next two to three years, but it remains to be seen whether this will filter through to the senior team," Choi added.

The North kick off their Asian Cup campaign against Uzbekistan in Sydney on Jan 10.