Sweet sixteen for North Korea's women at Asian Games

North Korea's women's football team thrashed Tajikistan 16-0 at the Asian Games on Friday, a merciless demolition which saw three players score hat-tricks.

International sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear weapons programme continue to hamper financing for the country's footballing ambitions, such as sending stars to top European clubs. (Representational Image)   -  Getty Images

It is a scoreline so audacious even Kim Jong Il would have blushed. North Korea's women's football team thrashed Tajikistan 16-0 at the Asian Games on Friday, a merciless demolition which saw three players score hat-tricks.

Unlike its former leader's legendary first-ever round of golf — in which he claimed to hit 11 holes-in-one — the footballers' achievement is recorded in the official record books of Asia's regional Olympics.

North Korea's women, whose win equalled the tournament record, have long been elite-level international performers. Pyongyang has invested in sporting success in recent times, opening an elite football academy for young boys and girls five years ago in the capital, as well as a top-class ski resort.

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But, the women's success has far outstripped their male counterparts, including three Asian Games gold medals, three Asian Cups and the last under-17 and under-20 World Cups.

Current leader Kim Jong Un appears to have taken particular interest in women's football, reportedly visiting the team in training before the last Asian Games to offer “valuable instruction on how to win the gold medal”. It went on to win the tournament.

The following year he hugged returning members of the victorious East Asian Cup campaign at Pyongyang airport, praising its “guerrilla-style” tactics and “indefatigable mental prowess”, according to state news agency KCNA.

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But, things have not always been so straightforward for the North's female footballers. They were banned from the 2015 Women's World Cup after five players failed drugs tests at the previous edition in 2011.

The team doctor at the time blamed the test results on a “Chinese remedy” made from musk deer glands to treat players who had been struck by lightning.

International sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear weapons programme continue to hamper financing for the country's footballing ambitions, such as sending stars to top European clubs.

And, the team will miss out on next year's World Cup in France after being narrowly edged out in early qualifying by neighbour South Korea — a country with which the North remains technically at war.

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'Nervous' loss

Even so, the North's women continue to leave their male counterparts in their wake. North Korea's men's team coach Ju Soyg Il apologised Friday for his “nervous” players after a heavy defeat to Iran left his side on the brink of an early exit from the same tournament.

The 3-0 loss means the men's team need a win in its final match to have a chance of avoiding group-stage elimination — just four years after it reached the final.

“We have to find the reasons why we lost the matches. One reason is that many of the players may be nervous. The players were psychologically down,” an ashen-faced Ju told reporters after the match.

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Ju also blamed referee decisions for his team's loss Friday — North Korea had a player sent off and conceded a penalty in a fiery second half — but pledged to “learn lessons” from the setbacks.

It leaves North Korea's men needing to beat Saudi Arabia and rely on results elsewhere to progress. Unsurprisingly, the women's team tops its group — albeit on goal difference over China, which could only manage to overcome Hong Kong 7-0.