With approximately one month until Erchim FC kicks off its 2018 AFC Cup qualifying campaign, we look ahead to the team's qualifying play-offs opponent, Hwaebul Sports Club (which translates to Torchlight Sports Club) of North Korea.
With the higher seeded association hosting the second-leg matches this year, Erchim begins its campaign at home on 13 February. Exactly one week later, the team will travel to North Korea for the away fixture. Although venues have not been announced, it is expected that Erchim will play its matches at the MFF Football Stadium as it has done in recent years. It is unclear whether Erchim Stadium, which is more like a pitch with bleacher seating than a full stadium, fails to meet AFC requirements or if it was the club's choice to compete at the more modern facility. It is also unknown where Hwaebul SC's home matches will be played, although the club has a small, yet modern stadium of its own.
Hwaebul SC is a multi-sport club from Pochonbo, Ryanggang Province, North Korea that was founded in May 2013. The club has experienced a large amount of success in its short history. In addition to its second place finish in the 2017 DPR Korea League, it earned a third place finish in its first year in the league; won the league one year later; and has earned several other smaller cup victories.
It is associated with the country's Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth Alliance.
Despite the club's 2014 championship, this will be Hwaebul SC's first time participating in an AFC competition. Although North Korea was awarded an automatic group stage appearance which would have gone to the club, and another entrant eligible for play-off qualification, the association did not enter any teams in the 2015 edition of the tournament.
Erchim FC has competed in the previous two editions of the tournament and earned the first-ever group stage appearance by a Mongolian team in 2017. Despite initially missing out on advancement to Three Star Club of Nepal, Erchim advanced after the Nepalese association did not register its club before the deadline. Erchim FC got another break as both of Chinese Taipei's entrants, Taipower and Tatung F.C., both withdrew, placing Erchim directly into the group stage.
Erchim faced North Korean opponents for the first time as it was drawn into Group I with both April 25 and Kigwancha Sports Club. Following the home-and-away series, the Mongolian club was greatly outclassed with a goal ratio of 0 to 21 and failed to earn a point in four matches.
The winner of the series will automatically qualify for the group stage and be placed into Group I along with April 25 of North Korea, Hang Yuen of Chinese Taipei, and Macau's Benfica.