Olympic qualifying ‘mystery’ path could lead to North Korea play-off – a goal-fest might secure it

Sam Kerr and Caitlin Foord both scored hat-tricks as the Matildas took down the Philippines 8-0 in front of a sold out Optus Stadium.

It’s doubtful that Sam Kerr’s fame has reached as far as North Korea – but that could be about to change if the Matildas earn an Olympic play-off in Pyongyang.

As Australia targets a barrage of goals against Chinese Taipei on Wednesday to underpin their hopes of qualifying for the 2024 Olympics, North Korea are poised to secure a place in the final round of qualifying as best-placed runners-up, along with the Matildas and the other two group winners.

Those four teams will play each other in parallel home-and-away play-offs next February, but mystery still surrounds how the four teams in that final round will be drawn against each other – or where North Korea would play its “home” leg.

The four teams heading into the final round of women’s qualifying now look set to be Australia, Japan, North Korea and either South Korea or China, but CommBank Matildas officials still have no guidance as to how the teams will be divided for the two play-offs.

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The qualification group tables – as it stands

GROUP A

NationMPWDLGFGAGDPTS
Australia2200100106
Philippines210149-53
Iran201102-21
Chinese Taipei201114-31

GROUP B

NationMPWDLGFGAGDPTS
South Korea211010194
Korea DPR21102114
China21014223
Thailand2002113-120

GROUP C

NationMPWDLGFGAGDPTS
Japan22009096
Uzbekistan210112-13
Vietnam21013213
India2002110-90

Given North Korea’s lack of a FIFA ranking there are concerns the teams may be drawn as to how they finish in this round of qualifying, with the highest-placed team in that scenario drawing the weakest. Australia currently hold the whiphand narrowly with two wins from two and a goal difference of +10, compared with Japan and South Korea’s +9.

Until the Asian Games earlier this month, North Korea had not played a competitive game since early 2019, just before Covid swept the globe. As a result their team is unranked by FIFA, yet stormed to a silver medal at the Asian Games just four weeks ago.

Now they sit second in Group B, behind bitter rivals South Korea after a 0-0 draw between the two on Sunday in China. North Korea’s last game is against Thailand who have lost both their fixtures so far by an aggregate of 13-1 – and the team known tactfully by FIFA as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea by FIFA could even win their group if South Korea drop points against China.

The North Korea women’s team was inside the top 10 globally until FIFA stripped away its ranking in 2021, and has long been a propaganda tool for Kim Jong Un’s government, which can be expected to demand the right to host its home leg of any play-off in Pyongyang.

When North Korea beat South Korea 4-1 at the Asian Games earlier this month, state television in North Korea referred to their opponents only as “the puppet regime”. Until 2019 foreign teams regularly travelled to one of the world’s most repressive regimes – including the Olyroos in 2007 when they earned a 1-1 draw to clinch a place at the 2008 Olympics.

Matildas boss Tony Gustavsson is well aware of the potential permutations, meaning his team will be instructed to throw every part of its attacking arsenal against Chinese Taipei tomorrow night, knowing that every goal could be crucial.

Gustavsson’s vice-captain Steph Catley admits it’s a peculiar situation – but one to expect in the cutthroat nature of Olympic qualifying.

“It’s a bit of a weird situation,” Catley said. “I suppose we could come up against someone like Japan, and then one of us would be out.

“But that’s the nature of these types of situations. Leading into big tournaments you come up against some of the best teams, and sometimes you don’t make it.

“Look at Europe – there are so many good teams that miss out on the Olympics. That’s just the situation we’re in, but the main thing we can do is control what we can control. For us that’s winning, doing it however we need to scoring as many goals as we can.”

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The Matildas round out this phase of Olympic qualification against Chinese Taipei, who are all-but certain to miss out on progression to the two-legged playoffs. 

The 38th-ranked nation in the world lost 4-1 to the Philippines before a goalless draw against Iran to sit at the foot of Group A heading into the final fixtures of the round-robin series in Perth.

But for head coach Chan Hiu-Ming, the on-field performance of his side was just half of his tournament objective in Australia; in an extraordinary pre-tournament press-conference, Hiu-Ming challenged his players to use the tour of Perth to broaden their perspective on what’s possible to achieve as a female footballer in this day and age, where public interest is increasing and leagues around the world – including the Liberty A-League – offer players better development opportunities than ever before.

“We can see how the development in Australia from 10 years, 20 years ago, football in Australia was maybe not the most (popular), you would not have these numbers of fans,” Hiu-Ming said.

“I would like my players to get this opportunity to open their eyes, to set up their wishes, to set up their ambitions that the football world is so big. My girls, their lives (are) simple, but also their vision for me is a little bit limited.

Chan Hiu-Ming.

“I hope in this tournament they will see women’s football is now booming, growing in Australia and over the world – and they can have a chance to play in front of thousands of spectators, make them proud, make them think that playing football is a dream of every football lover.”

Then came a challenge from the Chinese Taipei coach levelled at clubs around Australia to look to his players as potential signings in the Liberty A-League.

“I would like to get this chance to hope that, if there is any club in Australia, if you think the players from Chinese Taipei may have a little bit of potential to play in you league, just try to take a look,” he said.

“Because our local league development is not yet as professional as Australia or in Europe. I have these hopes and expectations. Results (are) short-term, but development is long-term. For me as a coach, I would like the girls to have more chances to explore, to travel abroad and to make their ambitions inside their minds.”

MATCH DETAILS

Iran v Philippines  
Date: Wednesday, 1 November 2023  
Kick-off: 3:50pm AWST / 6:50pm AEDT 
Venue: HBF Park, Perth

Australia v Chinese Taipei  
Date: Wednesday, 1 November 2023  
Kick-off: 7pm AWST / 10pm AEDT 
Venue: HBF Park, Perth