North Korea’s national soccer team, looking to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 16 years, dropped its first match of the tournament after a bizarre goalkeeping error led to a penalty kick.

North Korea lost 0-1 to Syria on Sunday (Sept. 17) at Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Stadium in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in the first match of Group B of the Asian second qualifying round for the FIFA World Cup 2026 (co-hosted by Canada, Mexico and the United States).

North Korea, which is looking to qualify for the tournament for the first time in 16 years since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, was drawn in Group B alongside Japan, Syria and Myanmar. North Korea will play Syria in its first match before traveling to Myanmar for the second leg on Nov. 21. Initially, the game was scheduled to be played at home against North Korea, but the order was changed and the game was played at home against Syria. Due to the conflict in Syria, the home game was held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a neighboring country. It is believed that North Korea is not ready to allow foreigners into the country yet, which is why they changed the order of the home and away games with Syria.

The match will be North Korea’s first A match since a friendly against Tajikistan on July 19, 2019 in Ahmedabad, India. North Korea also played South Korea in the Asian second round of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, but its record in the second round was wiped clean when it withdrew from the tournament due to COVID-19.

Beginning with the 2026 World Cup in North and Central America, the number of spots allocated to Asia will increase from 4.5 to 8.5 due to the change in the number of countries participating in the tournament from 32 to 48. While Asian nations were eager to get back to the World Cup, North Korea failed to capitalize on a goalkeeping error in the first game of the crucial qualifier.

North Korea, ranked 115th in the FIFA rankings, were playing against 92nd-ranked Syria, who were ranked higher than them, when a big mistake by goalkeeper Kang Joo Hyuk in the 36th minute put them in danger of conceding a goal.

As the ball rose high and crossed into the penalty box, Kang left his goal and came forward to deal with the ball. At this point, Kang attempted to jump, expecting the ball to be heavily bound as it was falling from a high angle.

However, Syrian striker Omar Karbin, who had entered the box, was one step ahead of him and managed to get a touch on the ball as it was falling, making it his own. Karvin then collided with Kang Joo-hyuk as he jumped and fell, and the referee didn’t hesitate to call a foul on Kang, awarding Syria a penalty kick.

With the opportunity to take the lead, Syria sent striker Omar Alsoma to take the kick. Alsoma perfectly fooled goalkeeper Kang Joo-hyuk and slotted the ball into the right corner of the goal to give Syria a valuable lead.

Goalkeeper Kang Joo-hyuk’s mistake from the penalty spot proved to be the game-winner, and North Korea failed to pick up a point in their first Asian qualifier, losing 0-1.

Meanwhile, the match between Japan and Myanmar at the Panasonic Stadium Suita on Sept. 16 ended in a 5-0 victory for the Japanese, moving them to the top of Group B on goal difference. Second place goes to Syria, while North Korea, who lost but only conceded one goal, is third. Myanmar, who conceded five goals in a crushing defeat, drops to fourth. Of the 36 teams in the Asian secondary qualifiers, only the first and second-place finishers in each group will advance to the final round.

North Korea, who pulled out of the tournament midway through the second round of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar due to the COVID-19 pandemic, got off to a shaky start, losing their first game against Syria after a goalkeeping error.


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