North Korea set to confirm superpower status
After a two-month delay because of Sars, the Asian Football Confederation Women's Championship kicks off today in Bangkok when hosts Thailand take on Singapore at the Rajamangala Stadium.
That match will be followed immediately by Hong Kong's clash with South Korea.
Hong Kong are unlikely to cause much of a stir in the 14-team competition. In the 1999 competition they provided Guam with their first victory in any kind of international football on their way to conceding 36 goals in four matches. They did manage to defeat the Philippines in the 2001 edition, however.
This year, the fifth team in Group A, North Korea, are sure to be the headline makers.
Atypical pneumonia has not only delayed the tournament, it has given it a fascinating twist. Because of Sars, China have been replaced as hosts of this year's FIFA Women's World Cup by the United States. This tournament will provide at least three qualifiers for the Cup, however, because China have retained their automatic berth.
North Korea, the defending champions and Asian Games gold medallists, are the new powerhouses in the Asian women's game. The main question about them taking one of the places in the US was because of doubts they would actually turn up in Bangkok. As it is, the White House is soon going to have to force a grin and issue a warm welcome to one third of the 'axis of evil'.
The Democratic Peoples Republic emerged as a force in the game at the 2001 championship in Taiwan, where they ended China's run of seven consecutive Asian titles by beating the 'Steel Roses' 3-1 in the semi-finals. At the Pusan Asiad they triumphed again, topping the six-team round-robin tournament by two points from the Chinese, who had held them to a goalless draw.
While China have had to go through a rebuilding programme after allowing their fantastic team of the 1990s, led by Sun Wen, to grow old together, North Korea have developed a formidable side who play a physical game.
'We've made our players as strong as men. Our physical strength is our biggest advantage,' said North Korean coach Ri Song-gun after last year's Asian Games.
As Japan, who finished third in Pusan, are the only other genuine challengers in Bangkok, it is extremely unlikely that there will be two teams strong enough to muscle North Korea out of World Cup qualification.
That raises the possibility that the women's football arena will become another battlefield in the running stand-off between the US and the secretive Stalinist state.