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Kuala Lumpur: Youth teams from DPR Korea dominated the FIFA U-17 and U-20 Women’s World Cups 2016 and secured both titles. What is the secret of their success?

Sibling rivalry has been going on since the dawn of time: if one child receives a present, the other immediately wants one, too. If Johnny becomes a sprint champion, his sister will try to emulate that success in another field. The fight for recognition drives brothers and sisters both on, and in football it is no different. If a club’s youth team wins the league, this will serve as an incentive to the next team up the age ladder to go one better. The more senior team will certainly not want to be outdone by their juniors.

This was certainly the case when DPR Korea took to the field at the start of the U-20 Women’s World Cup in Papua New Guinea. Just weeks before, their “little sisters” had won the U-17 title in Jordan and won many admirers with their attacking style. At the first major women’s tournament to be held in an Arab country, the midfielders pushed forward into space and the wide players deployed in attacks. Constant movement without the ball was much in evidence, and spectators were also impressed by the passes played in behind the opposition’s defence.

The bar was thus set high for the U-20 team in Papua New Guinea, with ambitions and expectations to match. But coach Hwang Yong-bong’s side also possessed mental strength and dished up some refreshingly entertaining football, as their goal tally of 21 attests. As captain Choe Sol-gyong hoisted the trophy aloft, her coach spoke jubilantly of a “historic success”.

Some 6,000 kilometres away, as the crow flies, from Port Moresby, the scene of this triumph, the youth teams’ achievements have been celebrated but taken no one by surprise, as football development has been a high priority in DPR Korea in recent years. The strategies pursued at Pyongyang’s international football academy are aimed at bringing together all of DPR Korea's talents and developing them in accordance with global standards.

Absorbing external knowledge

The academy is located on the idyllic island of Rungna on the Taedong River, which rises in the Rangrim Mountains and flows into the Yellow Sea some 400 kilometres away. In contrast to the tranquil surroundings, plenty of effort is expended inside the centre, where some 200 youngsters aged between nine and 14 – of whom 40 percent are girls – have trained since it opened in 2013. They come from various provinces in the country and sleep at the academy, where they also attend school lessons, although it goes without saying that football is the main reason that they are there. Success on the pitch is all that matters to them, but they must constantly work at their game, as every year, ten percent of the players are shown the door.

Although DPR Korea has had football academies for a number of years, the Pyongyang International Football School is the first academy to align itself with the game as it is played abroad and the trends emerging globally. It invites international experts to run courses, while players are loaned to club academies in Spain and Italy, where they can become familiar with European training methods and pass on their newly acquired knowledge to their fellow players and coaches.

On schedule

The original plan was for the U-17 and U-20 teams to be in the top three of the world by 2018, but going by recent exploits, that aim seems to have been already achieved.

However, another of the plan’s objectives is for the senior international side to become a member of the world’s elite. The team has undergone some difficulties in recent years, with several of its players failing doping tests at the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany, leading to an outright ban on participation in the 2015 tournament in Canada. In addition, the league continues to stagnate, and international matches have become something of a rarity.

The successes of the youth teams have given a boost to the “big sisters” as they endeavour to reach their goals. “I’m delighted with our victory, but we can’t stop here. We have to keep on working to win more titles,” said Hwang Yong-bong (pictured above) in Papua New Guinea, looking ahead.

The same approach is being taken in Pyongyang, where the artificial turf seems to be greener than before and the players are leaping even higher over the cones in training. After all, success breeds success, or so the saying goes.

But the hard work starts here, spurred on no doubt by sibling rivalry. How did Irving Berlin put it? “Anything you can do, I can do better...”

Sources: FIFA 1904, FIFA/Getty Images