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N. Korea Exudes Air of Mystery

The U.S., whose style of play is an open book, scrambles to scout the team it faces in today's World Cup game.

September 28, 2003|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio — At her home in Littleton, Colo., April Heinrichs threatens to be engulfed by an avalanche of videotapes. She has literally hundreds of them.

"I have every videotape of every game the U.S. has played since 1995," the coach of the U.S. Women's World Cup team said Saturday.

Heinrichs also has a sizable selection of tapes on foreign teams, especially those from such women's soccer powers as Brazil, China, Germany, Norway and Sweden.

But when the United States was drawn to play North Korea in the first round of the fourth FIFA Women's World Cup -- which it does today at sold-out Crew Stadium -- Heinrichs and the rest of the U.S. coaching staff had to scramble.

"It's very difficult to get your hands on North Korean videotapes," she said. "So you pray that there's some way to get hold of them, that maybe you can do an exchange with another country."

Heinrichs eventually succeeded, and, just to make doubly sure that she knew in advance the Koreans' strengths and weaknesses, she sent someone to Thailand to scout their last three matches at this year's Asian Women's Championship, which North Korea won.

"North Korea is the team we know the least" about, she said, "but we've been able to see them play twice [already in this World Cup]. So all told we've probably watched five or six games of theirs."

Things were a lot easier for North Korea Coach Ri Song Gun.

"Here's the thing that's hilarious to me," Heinrichs said before the 16-nation tournament began. "Getting a video of the U.S. team is incredibly easy. Which game do you want?

"There are no secrets, in a lot of respects, about the U.S. team. We're the most covered team. And I think that, naively so, we give away too much information.

"But it's not like we're going to really surprise anyone. We're the ones with the targets on our backs."

The mystery surrounding the Koreans is something they almost seem to cultivate. At news conferences, their officials answer questions obliquely. Their players are never made available to speak to the media.

"There isn't much known about them and that can worry many teams," Peter Velappan, secretary general of the Asian Football Confederation, told the FIFAworldcup.com Web site. "And, what they have seen also probably worries them."

The U.S. squad was scheduled to watch "the Korean videos" Saturday night, and the plot was sure to be in stark contrast to "Under the Tuscan Sun," which some players went to the movies to see Friday night.

"I've just heard from many people that they are a very good, talented, fit, very technical, very organized team," U.S. midfielder Julie Foudy said Saturday.

The U.S. is coming off a physical game Thursday night against Nigeria, which it won, 5-0, and needs only a tie to secure first place in its group and advance to the quarterfinals. North Korea, meanwhile, is coming off a 1-0 loss to Sweden and faces probable elimination if it loses again.

"Obviously, with a two-day-off turnaround, we'd like to have at least one more day, but at the same time North Korea's coming off the same amount of days," Mia Hamm said Saturday. "It's going to be a battle out there.

"The one thing is we came out of that [Nigeria] game relatively healthy, and that was important. For us yesterday was about regeneration and today it's about focusing and getting our mind-set ready to compete against North Korea, because it's going to take a group effort."

Heinrichs has identified midfielder Ri Hyang Ok and forwards Jin Pyol Hui, Ri Kum Suk and Yun Yong Hui as the four players who pose the greatest threat to the U.S. chances for victory.

Inevitably, just as they did when the U.S. men played Iran during the France '98 World Cup, questions over the strained political relations between the U.S. and North Korea and their possible effect on the match came up Saturday. The American players deflected them adroitly.

"I think that we're focused entirely on soccer," said Foudy, the team's co-captain. "We've played different countries over the course of the history of this team, during different political times, and we refrain from making any political statements or anything like that just before a game.

"We hope that this World Cup is a unique event, like the Olympics, where you bring countries of the world together and the world's eyes are focused on a special event that doesn't happen very often. Hopefully, there can be a lot of good that comes from it."

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