SEOUL: North Korea's drive towards their first World Cup finals since 1966 stayed on track with a crucial 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, leaving their opponents with a massive uphill task to qualify.
Mun In-Guk was the Korean hero, toe-poking the ball under Saudi keeper Waleed Abdullah in the 29th minute to put his side on seven points in Asian qualifying Group 2 after four games.
The Saudis, who have made the last four World Cup finals, are now in serious trouble with just four points and four games to play, starting with a tough trip to Tehran next month to face Iran in a must-win match.
Group leaders South Korea (seven points) and Iran (five points) play later Wednesday while United Arab Emirates already look dead and buried with just one
North Korea lack experience at international level and on paper they were the underdogs, having failed to win any of their previous six matches against the Saudis.
But the ever-progressive side, who last reached the World Cup famously in England in 1966 when they made the quarter-finals, have re-emerged from the wilderness during this qualifying campaign.
Played on an artificial surface in freezing temperatures at the Kim Il-Sung Stadium in Pyongyang, some Saudi players wore not just gloves but also scarfs as they battled the elements as well as their opponents.
The Saudis had the opening chance when Tassier Al Jassim picked up the ball in the box but couldn't find the killer touch to open the scoring.
North Korea had a half-hearted penalty appeal turned down soon after but it was the Saudis who threatened most in the opening 20 minutes.
The Koreans though soon woke up and were dangerous on the break.
Their patience paid off with a period of sustained pressure resulting in captain Hong Yon-Jo's lovely backheel finding Mun, with the midfielder making no mistake to put his team 1-0 in front.
Influential Saudi captain Yasser Al Qatani, a former Asian player of the year, had a golden opportunity to draw level in the dying minutes of the first half but his shot was blocked by a body of red shirts.
Despite it being mid-afternoon on a weekday, the imposing stadium was packed but the crowd was strangely subdued. Virtually everyone was wearing brown or black with no flags or banners and hardly a hint of team colours.
When North Korea had the ball the crowd roared but when the Saudis were in possession it was deathly silent.
Ultimately, the Koreans were worthy winners, taking the game to Saudi Arabia in the second half with Hong almost making it 2-0 when his long-range drive skimmed the crossbar with 23 minutes left.
They had other chances to wrap it up but in the end it needed a fine save from rookie home goalkeeper Ri Myong-Dok in the final minutes to ensure victory.