SEOUL, May 20- Reclusive North Korea have waited 44 years to revisit the World Cup finals and their sights are set on matching their exploits from 1996 when they upset the odds and made the quarter-finals.
It’s a lofty goal and they have their work cut out after being drawn in perhaps the hardest group of all, with mighty Brazil, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, and Didier Drogba and his Ivory Coast teammates awaiting them.
One thing that North Korea has in its favour is an aura of the unknown.
They came from nowhere to storm into the Asian zone’s final round of qualifying, where they defied sizeable odds to take one of the continent’s four automatic spots in South Africa.
Better known for its nuclear weapons programme and dubious human rights record, North Korea, who play all in white, hardly endeared themselves to neutral fans with their defensive brand of football.
They scored just seven goals in eight qualifiers yet it was an approach that worked, with coach Kim Jong-Hun favouring a pragmatic and defensive style based around discipline and teamwork.
"We’ll fight to the end to qualify for the second round, despite the enormity of the task," assistant coach Jo Tong-Sop told FIFA earlier in the year.
"As usual we’ll rely on our own characteristic style built around fighting spirit and teamwork in order to achieve our aim.
"Obviously we’ll need to give a very good defensive performance against Brazil and Portugal."
With a lack of first-hand experience playing one of the world’s most secretive countries, none of the other teams in the group will be taking Kim’s squad lightly.
Most of the North Koreans play domestic football and little is known about them, but they do have a handful who ply their trade internationally
Jong Tae-Se is one. He has terrific strength and is a fierce striker of the ball for Japanese side Kawasaki Frontale.
Hong Yong-Jo is deadly up front, scoring four times in as many games during qualifying, while home-based midfielder Mun In-Guk is the man who makes the team tick.
Ri Myong-Guk has proven to be a safe pair of hands between the sticks.
They couldn’t have asked for a tougher introduction to South Africa with their first game in Johannesburg against Brazil on June 15, before travelling to Cape Town to face Portugal and then Ivory Coast in Nelspruit.
North Korea have only played in one previous World Cup, in 1966 when a shock 1-0 victory over Italy secured their place in World Cup folklore before they were eliminated 5-3 by Portugal in the quarter-finals.
Coach Kim said matching those exploits was the target.
"It was as a result of our hard work that we will return to the World Cup, 44 years after we reached last eight at England 1966," he said.
"I hope we can repeat the feats of our predecessors."
Football is the most popular sport in North Korea but Pyongyang’s leadership banned the national squad from travelling abroad after losing to arch-rivals Japan and South Korea in qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup.
They returned to international football at the Bangkok Asian Games in 1999 but did not compete in qualifying for the 1998 World Cup in France or 2002 in South Korea and Japan.