After dispatching of the United States in the semi-final round of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Papua New Guinea, North Korea looks poised to take home its second championship trophy from this very competition. The last task in attaining the winners’ medals is France, a team with which the North Koreans have some unique history.
North Korea were crowned U-20 Women’s World Champions in 2006, winning that year’s tournament held in Russia. It was a watermark achievement for the nation’s soccer development system as they became just the third country to win the competition, joining the dominant Americans and Germany. As much of that class went on to represent the senior national team and have stellar professional careers, the North Koreans, ever focused on the future, looked to use that 2006 triumph to inspire a new generation of promising players to eventually carry the torch. Young girls who were between eight and ten years old in 2006 make up the team that is currently battling to replicate history all of ten years later.
In the final of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in 2012, North Korea played France in the final in Azerbaijan. That game still haunts the minds of many North Korean players who took part. Deadlocked after 120 minutes, France prevailed 7-6 on penalties. The two teams had tied 1-1 in that tournament’s group stage, meaning France never actually beat North Korea in regulation but were still crowned champions of the tournament. In total, fourteen players who were in either the France or North Korea squad on that day in 2012 will be on the team sheets for Saturday’s final at the National Stadium in Papua New Guinea.
Nine of those fourteen players are on the North Korean side. While they are all certainly conscious of the different circumstances this time around, the likes of Jon So Yon, Kim Phyong Hwa, Ri Un Sim, Ri Hyang Sim, Ri Un Yong, Kim Un Hwa, Rim Yong Hwa, Ri Kyong Hyang and Kim So Hyang are all anxious to enact some manner of revenge as they go head to head in a final with a French national squad for the second time in their careers.
Defender Jon So Yon has been one of the brightest stars for North Korea in this latest competition. Her leadership, as well as her coolness from the penalty spot, was crucial in her side’s 2-1 win over a highly touted United States team in the semi-final. Her calm nature and stellar conversion rate from twelve yards out in both games and training has garnered Jon a rather lovely nickname from her teammates. They call her “The Penalty Queen”.
Going back to the last U-20 Women’s World Cup in Canada which Jon also took part in, the talismanic North Korean has scored five goals in eleven matches in this competition. Every single one of them has been from the penalty spot.
“Set pieces are my speciality, and if I can help the team that way then it gives me even greater satisfaction,” said the 20 year-old. “Having said that, I don’t mind if I score myself or provide the assist. What matters most is that we succeed as a team.”
Every player, whether a woman, man, girl, or boy, may have their own philosophy and mental approach when it comes to penalty kicks. Some keep it simple. Some like it to be rather robotic, picking a spot in the corner and tuckin it to bed, placing an unstoppable attempt into an untouchable corner every time. Some make it rather complex, hesitations and stutter-steps to try and outsmart the goalkeeper or make the netminder tip their hand. Some try to separate emotion from the moment. Others channel the emotion into a powerful advantage against their opposition. Jon So Yon not only channels the emotion of the moment and the given game, but also her own bloodline.
“I think of my entire family when I take a penalty, as if I’m shooting for them,” she said after the semi-final win over the U.S. “My dad is also a coach in North Korea’s top flight and watches all my games. He’s always giving me tips.”
The ultimate irony when it comes to the Penalty Queen in relation to their next opponent is how that U-17 Women’s World Cup Final played out in 2012. Jon was withdrawn for a substitute late in the second half and could only watch from the sideline as the French team eventually prevailed after a relative marathon of a shootout.
“I remember that final particularly well,” Jon said. “I had already been substituted and could only watch everything unfold at the end, which made it even worse.”
Marion Romanelli, Onema Geyoro, Cindy Perrault, Delphine Cascarino, and Juliane Gathrat are the five French players who took part in that match and will all be available to play in the U-20 final on Saturday. Cascarino has arguably been France’s best outfield player at this tournament.
France goalie Mylene Chavas is looked at as one of the best keepers in the competition, a number of big saves and more often her ability to read the game and cut out crosses being huge boosts to the French effort thus far. Their pathway to the title has been fully paved. Now it’s just up to the French team to get one more win. If deja-vu strikes between these two, and this final goes to penalties, France have as strong of a presence between the pipes as they could ask for. Of course, the North Koreans have Jon So Yon, and while she’s only one player who can take one kick, her presence alone is enough to give her side a psychological and competitive boost when they need it most.
Now if North Korea get a penalty kick in regulation, there’s no doubting how that will play out. When hit with that particular “what if” question, Jon replied, “Then I’ll step up and score – I’m certain of that.”
FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Final
Korea DPR vs. France
Kickoff: Saturday, December 3rd, 19:30 local time (3:30 AM PT)
Third Place Game
USA vs. Japan
Kickoff: Saturday, December 3rd, 16:00 local time (12:00 AM PT)