S. Korean women’s football team looking to clinch Asian Cup spot in N. Korea

March 31, 2017

AEN20170331011600315_01_iSEOUL, March 31 (Yonhap) — The South Korean women’s national football team will travel across the border next week to earn a spot at the top Asian football competition amid deepening tension on the peninsula.

South Korea, led by head coach Yoon Duk-yeo, will fly to Pyongyang for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Women’s Asian Cup Group B qualifying tournament starting Monday. The two Koreas are also paired with Uzbekistan, India and Hong Kong.

Yoon’s side will open the qualifying stage with India on Wednesday, followed by the much-anticipated all-Korean showdown next Friday. South Korea will then face Hong Kong on April 9 and will wrap up the qualification with Uzbekistan on April 11.

All Group B matches will be played at Kim Il-sung Stadium in Pyongyang. South Korea will fly to China on Sunday to obtain visas at the North Korean embassy in Beijing before entering Pyongyang the next day.

Any trip to the North requires the South’s approval, as well as the North’s consent, as the two Koreas have technically remained in a state of war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The Seoul government on Thursday approved the football team’s visit to Pyongyang after the North assured the safety of the South Korean team via the AFC.

The two Koreas meet amid high tensions on the peninsula following speculation that Kim Jong-un’s regime may soon conduct its sixth nuclear test. It will mark the first time the two sides will go head-to-head in a competitive football match in Pyongyang for either the men’s or women’s team. Including a friendly, South Korea last played in Pyongyang in 1990 when the men’s team suffered a 2-1 loss there.

Aside from political matters and rivalry, South Korea will try to come out on top in North Korea because only the group winner will advance to the 2018 Women’s Asian Cup in Jordan. The eight-team Asian Cup doubles as the qualifying tournament for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, meaning that if South Korea can’t finish atop the group in Pyongyang, they are automatically out for the women’s showpiece event as well.

The Koreas are the top two contenders for the Asian Cup qualification based on the latest FIFA rankings. North Korea are ranked No. 10, third highest among all AFC members, followed by South Korea (No. 17), Uzbekistan (No. 42), India (No. 56) and Hong Kong (No. 65).

For South Korea to win the Asian Cup qualifying, they must overcome North Korea, but history is not on the Taeguk Ladies’ side.

North Korea, three-time Asian Cup winners, have dominated South Korea so far with 14 wins, one loss and two draws. The only South Korean victory came in 2005, and their most recent meeting, the 2016 Olympic qualifying match in February last year, ended in a 1-1 draw.

South Korean boss Yoon, who led South Korea to the round of 16 for the first time at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, has been training with 23 players since March 20. In preparation for North Korea, the South Korean players also had their practices with loudspeakers playing the sound of North Korean football supporters, so that they can adjust better when they actually perform on the North Korean pitch next week.

Yoon, who played in a friendly match for the men’s team in Pyongyang in 1990, said his players are confident of taking on North Korea on hostile ground. Under Yoon’s helm, South Korea have had one draw and three losses against North Korea.

“We’ve played North Korea every year since I took over the team (in 2013), and I think the players have grown more aware of the North Korean style of play and made adjustments accordingly,” Yoon said at a recent press conference.

The South Korean women had a fine tune-up in Cyprus as they finished second at the Cyprus Cup tournament behind Switzerland earlier this month. North Korea finished third in the same tournament, and the two Koreas didn’t meet at the eight-team invitational competition.

South Korea will rely on veterans who are eager to upset North Koreans. Among those experienced players is forward Ji So-yun, star of Chelsea Ladies FC and the country’s all-time scoring leader with 41 goals in 91 matches. Cho So-hyun, with 97 caps, will control the midfield.

Goalkeeper Kim Jung-mi, who boasts 106 appearances for South Korea, the most among female players here, will be the last line of defense. She is the oldest player on the squad at 32 and has played against North Korea 12 times in her international career.

AEN20170331011600315_02_i

In this file photo taken on Feb. 20, 2017, South Korean women’s national football players train at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap)

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