North Korea building momentum ahead of World Cup
Kim Jong-hun will have plenty to think about after seeing North Korea win the Asian Challenge Cup in a penalty shootout against Turkmenistan in Sri Lanka at the weekend.
While Kim was not at the helm of what was essentially an under-23 team as the North Koreans captured their first-ever continental title, he will have at least been given some food for thought as he ponders his squad for June's World Cup.
Food for thought
Jong Tong-sop - who normally works as Kim's assistant and who has long overseen the fortunes of the country's younger players - led the team to a victory that was far from certain given the youthfulness of the squad sent from Pyongyang.
However, the march to the final, a victory in trying circumstances and the subsequent qualification for the finals of next year's Asian Cup in Qatar highlight that the North Koreans are now among the elite of the Asian game.
As perverse as that may sound, North Korea's qualification for the finals of the World Cup had not entirely cemented them into a position among the top nations within the continent.
The perception among many has been that the disappointing performances of Iran, Saudi Arabia and China eased North Korea's path to South Africa as the country qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 44 years.
And while the opposition faced in Sri Lanka pales in comparison to Asian powers such as Japan, South Korea and Australia - never mind the teams they will face at the World Cup in a group featuring Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast - it has at least proven their status deserves to reevaluated.
Most importantly, there needs to be a change of the country's standing within the Asian Football Confederation's ranking system.
Several years ago, the AFC introduced a tiered set-up that saw the 46 nations which make up the confederation divided into three strands: 15 were included among those considered developed nations; 14 were named in the developing countries tier and 17 were seen as emerging associations.
The North Koreans, given their patchy participation record in many continental competitions were slotted into the second strand, the developing nations. That was despite the fact that the country had been among the 10 nations to progress to the final phase of Asia's qualifying tournament for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
That second level, however, is essentially split into two with the likes of Hong Kong, Jordan and Lebanon allowed to enter directly the qualifying rounds for the Asian Cup. Others, like North Korea, Myanmar and Turkmenistan were not.
Confident North Koreans
As a result, the North Koreans were forced to play in the Asian Challenge Cup, a tournament that also featured the likes of Tajikistan, India and Bangladesh - teams that are clearly several levels below a nation that has now qualified for the World Cup.
Which goes some way towards explaining why the North Koreans felt confident enough to send a team made up of the next generation of players they hope will allow them to continue to hold a place in the upper echelon of the continental game.
Their ultimate victory was a narrow one - coming as it did on penalties after the final ended in a 1-1 draw - but it highlights, along with the feat of qualifying for the World Cup, that the North Koreans need to be reassessed by the continental body.
Having now joined Japan and South Korea in reaching the World Cup and the finals of the Asian Cup next year, the North Koreans have proven beyond all doubt that the balance in power within the continent has shifted significantly to the east.
About the Author
Michael Church lives in Hong Kong and has spent the last decade-and-a-half covering soccer throughout Asia and, as a result, is one of the leading authorities on the game across the continent. He is World Soccer's correspondent for the region and during his time in Asia he has covered the performances of the region's teams at the last three World Cups.