North Korean football: the big mystery of FIFA football

If you live in a city that hosts one of the best (if not the best) football teams in the world, the country of the World Cup and European Championship cup holders, … then people frown upon you when you walk into a random Irish pub asking if they can show North Korea versus the United Arab Emirates on TV. When the pub owner saw I was really serious, and after I explained mysterious countries attract me, the guy saw no English, Italian or Spanish games were scheduled at that time of the day, and put on the one channel that broadcasted this game in Europe. Good boy. And so I was in an Irish pub watching North Korea versus the UAE of all games. I assume some people will question my psychological health again now…

That said, this was not just a random obscure game. It was the first game of their group of the Asian Cup in Qatar, the Asian equivalent of the European Championship. Iraq won the last edition by surprise, beating favourites Saudi Arabia 1-0. That gave Asian football a lot of attention suddenly. But the Asian Cup really isn’t that bad. The likes of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Australia, Japan and South Korea are really quite decent teams. Add to that some surprisingly well performing teams such as Jordan and Syria (both having beaten the regional giants Saudi Arabia so far) and the nostalgia of India making their first tournament appearance in almost 30 years (the oddity of their team is that almost half of their players have Singh as surname) … and then the Asian Cup isn’t really that bad of a tournament to follow. Let’s focus on the mystery men of the tournament AND of last year’s world cup: North Korea, or Korea DPR as they are called in FIFA terms.

The last year North Korea has been in the news quite often, and unfortunately often for quite unpleasant reasons. The more positive note from the Asian country came from the sporting side of the nation: North Korea qualified for the first time in 44 years for the World Cup. Suddenly the whole world was looking at North Korea again, and those with a heart for football had a special focus on the North Korean team. At this moment the team is also in the AFC Asian Cup, played in January 2011 in Qatar., their first appearance in the tournament since 1992. At least some good news from a country about which most news broadcasts are either about the harsh dictatorial regime, the supposed famine or at least malnutrition in the rural areas, the many conflicts with other nations (including their southern neighbours) … Then seeing a glimpse of normalness, by seeing the country sending their football team on the road, is quite a relief.

North Korea’s qualification for the World Cup last year did raise my interest in the country as a whole. I am currently working on a large article about that, so the details will be for that article. In short however: North Korea is by far the most secretive and isolated society on earth. The country, bordering China and Russia to the north and South Korea to the south, lives under a very harsh totalitarian dictatorship by Kim Jung-Il, who is called the Dear Leader. The official president is the founding father of the nation, Kim Il-Sung, aka the Great Leader. Even while he has deceased in the nineties, a law making him the eternal president of the country, means that North Korea is the only nation on earth where the head of state is dead. Obviously, the de facto ruler of the country is Kim Jung-Il, the son of the late Kim Il-Sung. His father developped his own ideology called Juche, an ideology based upon economical self-reliance. Most people consider the ideology to be a North Korean answer to Stalinism. The ideology of self-reliance (even when this never really worked in the first place as the DPRK has accepted aid from the Soviet Union many years and now survives by the grace of Chinese help and ironically even South Korean food aid at some points during its history) caused North Korea to choose voluntarely to self-isolate itself from the rest of the world.

North Korean society is a big mystery to most people. North Koreans have no access to internet, only to a nationwide intranet with only sites that promote the state ideology of Juche and praises the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. North Korean people have no phone or postal contacts with the outside world. TVs and radios tend to be sold manipulated so that they can only receive the country’s own state channels, who feed the population with non-stop propaganda. Listening to foreign channels illegally is severely punished. Tourism is increasing in the country but independent travel is not allowed, all tourists are accompanied by two to three guides who will assure the tourist does not see anything the government doesn’t want to be seen. The guides follow the tourists like a shadow, the only moments where tourists are on their own is inside the hotel. This means contacts with locals is very hard and for many visitors impossible. Propaganda is everywhere in the country and contact with the outside world almost non-existant. When exposed to foreign visitors, North Korean people often shy away voluntarely, drilled not to talk or communicate with the foreign visitor. Some visitors however claim that contact with locals is, although not often, possible ; one of the many contradicting testimonies that exist about the country.

All of this leaves the North Koreans cut off from the outside world. Travelling abroad is a privilege only for diplomats, athletes and other special delegations who usually are close to the leaders of the country. The local population has little to no contact with the outside world and isn’t even aware of how the outside world would be like. This all has to assure that local people really believe that despite all problems (electricity outages, natural disasters, etc) they live in a true worker’s paradise. Probably they indeed really believe this, or at least most of them do: constant propaganda from childhood on and lack of contact and knowledge of the outside world leave little else to believe in than the government’s version of facts. A true personality cult where people constantly praise the leader and his late father, is odd for the foreign visitor but very normal it seems in daily life in North Korea. Obviously there are always question marks remaining: do people never talk badly about the government inside their own apartment’s walls? Do people really think the empty avenues and highways and empty hotels all over the capital are normal? Do people believe the supernatural powers the leader is claimed to have? Hard to say, and contradicting info about this is widespread, so to know the real North Korea beyond what a tourist sees, is close to impossible.

Like locals have no contact with the outside world, the outside world also knows little about the real life in North Korea. The images we see and stories we hear about oppression, nationwide dress codes, food shortages, etc will probably be partially true at least, but it probably is not as extreme as some media like to portray it. The problem is: we have no clue about what really happens inside North Korean houses, in the villages tourists don’t visit, in schools, … The country is and so far remains a mystery.

Pretty much like the nation itself, the football team is one of the most mysterious ones on the planet. When North Korea qualified for the first time since 1966 (the famous world cup in which they eliminated Italy 1-0, a game documented in the documentary film "The Game of their Lives") a lot of people were unsure what to think. Apart from the national team’s games, not much is known about North Korean football. And with those national team games alone, it is quite hard to value the players because we never seem them within their domestic clubs. There is some information on Wikipedia but it is hard to know if all of that is correct and up-to-date. Because in a very secretive society, how could we really catch a glimpse from domestic football? With North Korea qualified for the World Cup 2010 and the Asia Cup 2011, the team was quickly branded the world’s football mystery men: the mysterious team from the most secretive country on earth, the team nobody knew anything about. It caused a strange attraction during the World Cup and obviously, easy to influence as I am (ahem, ahem) I was caught in the hype. With my favourite national teams having messed up in the qualifiers and absent during the World Cup, I immediately became a fan of the North Korean team for this one tournament. Mysteries attract, after all, and somehow I was hoping that maybe the team being present in the World Cup would bring a slight bit of contact between North Koreans and the outside world (although I guess I was a bit naive to believe that?).

Here is the bit of info I could find on North Korean football. It isn’t much, but until the country becomes less isolated, I guess this is all we got.

The national governing body of North Korea is the DPR Korea Football Association, abbreviated to KFA. It was established in 1945 and is member of both FIFA and AFC, the Asian continental federation. AFC affiliation happed in 1954, FIFA affiliation 4 years later.

The domestic league in North Korea is the DPR Korea League. It has three levels: the professional DPRK League, the DPR K-League 2, and the Amateur DPR-K League 3. There is also a national cup, but little is known about that. The DPR Korea League, the highest level, has the oddity that in fact there are 3 leagues that together are considered the highest level of football in the country. All three leagues are played at different times of the year: the Highest Class Football League, Technical Innovation Contests league (played February, May and June as per Wikipedia) and the Republic Championship (played in September and October, and apparently only featuring the best 6 teams although this is again hard to verify). Normally the winners of the league could play the Asian equivalents of the Champions League, but this is not happening due to the country not following the widespread transfer rules, which stems from the local communist system where the government gives the clubs budgets rather than clubs making money from transfering players.

According to the RSSSF statisticians, the most succesful team by far is 4.25 Sports Group from the city of Nampho. Pyongyang City from the capital, Locomotive Sports Team (from Sinuiju) and Amrokgang Sports Team (also from capital Pyongyang) also have gained many successes. It is indicating how rare info from the domestic league is, that even the otherwise extremely well documented RSSSF also have little information about two of the three leagues that form the highest level, and that for some years information and results are missing alltogether.

Another question mark is the ground. Some claim all games in the league, including those with teams from other cities, are played in Pyongyang, mainly in the national stadium. Some other resources claim that every city has a football ground and that teams thus play their home games each within their own city. Again, this is very hard to verify where the truth lies. Due to the secretive nature of the state, it is very hard to know if there is any football culture, fans travelling to away games, or how much the attendances for games is. Karl Messerli (see further in the article) claims he has witnessed many local league games whenever he is in North Korea, while the usually reliable Lonely Planet’s latest edition on the Korean peninsula claims foreign visitors can only visit national team games but not local league games. Another question where it is quite impossible to verify the truth.

The names in the highest division indicate that, like in East Bloc countries prior to the collapse of the Iron Curtain, a lot of teams are tied to specific government departments. A few examples:
1) 4.25 Sports Team (or Sports Group as I sometimes see it spelled, April 25 being another commonly used name) from the city of Nampho, is the most succesful club as far as statistics are available. The club is named after 25th April, which is Military Foundation Day. The club is tied to the Korean People’s Army. It has this name since 1971, earlier names being Central Sports Training School Sports Team, and 2.8 Sports Team. If we may believe the Wikipedia version of the facts (but hard to verify if this is the true version) the team was founded in 1949 and plays in the 30000 capacity Nampo Stadium in Nampho. Sobaeksu Sports Team is the de facto B team of 4.25 Sports Team.
2) Amrokgang Sports Team is tied to the Ministry of People’s Security.
3) Kyonggongop Sports Team is tied to the Ministry of Light Industry and is sometimes refered to with that name.

A few albeit incomplete statistics can be found here:

As one can see, the domestic football is a mystery as big as the country itself. One person who claims to know the league more in-depth is Karl Messerli. Messerli is a Swiss former player who even made the Swiss top flight. Nowadays he is in the textile business and doing business with North Korea, where he has invested quite a bit. He claims to have witnessed a lot of games in the local league whenever he visits the country (which contradicts other info stating that foreigners can not attend local league games). Messerli saw the potential but stated that North Koreans needed more international experience in order to improve the standard of their national team. After long negotiations, he was given green light to serve as agent for North Korean players to help them find foreign clubs to gain experience at the highest level.

A few players have meanwhile gained a transfer abroad. Cha Jong-Hyok played for Amrokgang until 2010, when after his world cup appearance he was signed by Swiss second division club FC Wil. Upcoming talent Kim Kuk-Jin is another player who is currently active for FC Wil in the Swiss second division. Hong Yong-Jo, the captain of the current team at the Asian Cup 2011, already was abroad before the World Cup 2010: he played for April 25 before leaving to Serbia where he played for FK Bezanija, and since 2008 he plays for Russian side FC Rostov.

On to the national team then. After the heroics in 1966 in England, it took 44 years before North Korea was back at the World Cup, the first time both North and South Korea had qualified. In the qualification they had little problems with Mongolia, and then in the next round found themselves in the same group as their neighbours South Korea, Jordan and Turkmenistan. South and North finished at a shared first place with 12 points and both proceeded to the final stage of qualification. In both games between the two Koreas there was a draw. In the final stage of qualifying the North and South were again in the same group, accompanied by Saudi Arabia, Iran and the UAE. Few people gave North Korea a chance amongst such powerhouses, but the defensively excellently organised North Koreans proved to be the surprise of the Asian qualifying. A home victory in a packed Kim Jung Il Stadium against Saudi Arabia (1-0) showed the world that the team was not to be taken lightly by the opponents. They also beat the UAE 2-0 at home, drew the home games against both South Korea and Iran. The "home" game versus their southern neighbours was played in Shanghai, China, due to the fact the North Korean authorities refused to play the South Korean hymn in Pyongyang. The 4th confontation between both Koreas, in Seoul, finally saw a winner after 3 draws, although the 1-0 victory for the South took a lot of effords with the decisive goal only in the dying minutes. North Korea also lost 2-1 in Iran but won 1-2 in the Emirates. Iran and Saudi both had some poor results and with Iran only drawing 1-1 in Seoul on the final day (South Korea was already qualified at that point), North Korea knew a draw in their last game versus Saudi Arabia would qualify them for the world cup. Both Saudi Arabia and North Korea were having 11 points on the tally before that game, but a better goal average for North Korea meant that a draw would be enough for them. The game in Riyadh saw Saudi push forward for the entire game, but the defensive wall of North Korea was doing a very good job and if the Saudi’s did manage to shoot on goal, there were heroic saves from goalkeeper Ri Myong-Guk (player of Pyongyang City). The goalie would later declare that he felt he was guarding the gateway to his homeland, a sign of the huge pattriotism of many players in the team. North Korea suffered in Riyadh, but held the 0-0 draw on the scoreboard till the end. This saw South Korea winning the group with North Korea qualifying as second placed. 44 years after the last and until that point only World Cup appearance in the country’s history, North Korea would be back on the biggest tournament of the world.

The preparation gave the world a first glimpse of the North Korea team. The fact almost nobody knew anything about the team only enhanced the fascination for the "mystery men from the most reclusive state on earth". North Korea returned to Europe for a training camp where they faced Congo-Brazzaville and a French club side. Other than the fact they narrowly grasped draws (reports states they were running and running all the time, showing excellent condition, but almost afraid to shoot the ball towards the goal, rather passing around the ball) the reluctance of the players to speak to western media was remarkable. Players were approached with innocent questions such as about the domestic league but immediately said they could not comment or refered to one of the staff members of the team for answers. It was almost as if they were afraid to talk to the foreign press, or either simply overwhelmed by something they are totally unused to. The players seemed to avoid any contact with outsiders, run away back to the hotel as rapidly as possible. Either the pressure must have been intense, or it was all very alienating for them.

It was pretty much similar to what was noticed by Michael Church of World Soccer, who followed the team during the previous East Asian Games in Hong Kong. Other participants were staying in hotels in downtown Hong Kong, crowded with tourists. North Korea’s team though, was in a recreation center far away from the city and the many tourists, their training facilities completely sealed off with gates and fences. The team was isolated, and it was the way the North Korean FA wanted it to be.

Apart from those friendlies in France, the build-up to the World Cup for the Chollima (the nickname coming from a mystical horse which, as per the legend, was rided by a worker and an intellectual – this makes one think about the North Korean Communist Party’s logo where hammer and sickle are accompanied by a brush to represent the intellectual) included games versus Venezuela, Greece and Mexico. The best result was a 2-2 draw in Greece. Both Korean goals in that game came from the absolute star of the team: Jong Tae-Se. An interesting case, this player nicknamed the "People’s Wayne Rooney" (a nickname he personally shuns however). The national team of North Korea is made up out of mainly locals and Zainichi Koreans: the ethnic Korean minority in Japan. Jong Tae-Se was born and grew up in Japan, with his parents holding South Korean citizenship. He could thus have chosen to represent Japan or South Korea as well. However, his mother supported the regime of North Korea and sent him to a school following the North Korean ideology. He could later claim a North Korean passport and chose to represent the North, without ever having lived there. The French training camp proved less promising: the team was held to a 0-0 draw by a Congo-Brazzaville team so badly organised the French PR man of the team had to coach them for the day. Second division club Nantes Atlantique also held the team to a 0-0 draw.

In South Africa, the team failed to repeat the heroics of the 1966 team. A 2-1 defeat in the first game in South Africa, with the opponent being Brazil, gave North Koreans hope their team would be capable of easily beating weaker opposition. This however turned out differently: a 7-0 hammering by Portugal in the second game lead to the biggest ever defeat of the national team. Extremely embarrassing because the game was live on TV as well. Before this game, often games of the national team were broadcasted with delay, so that the less flattering moments could be cut out of the match report. The game in Saudi Arabia where the North Koreans assured qualification for the World Cup, was actually shown on North Korean TV with a day delay (thus when it was sure the citizens could see a good result). It is questionable if games resulting in defeats had been broadcasted before as well or not. The final game in South Africa resulted in a 3-0 defeat by Ivory Coast, making the DPRK the worst performing team in the tournament (comparing to the other minnows: New Zealand, also expected to suffer serious losses, saw all of their three games end with a draw and they finished one point ahead of defending world champions Italy in their group, being also the only team to leave South Africa without having lost a game).

Sidenote: according to Messerli, the Swiss person serving as agent for North Korean players willing to go abroad, it was untrue that the Portugal-North Korea game was the first ever game broadcasted live in North Korea. Again contradicting info where the truth remains well hidden within the isolated country’s borders.

Nonetheless the team was an attraction because of the mystery surrounding the team. And because of some oddities that came with that. Only a 50 citizens were allowed to travel to South Africa to support the team (and obviously they were under surveillance of government officials who made the travel). Normally North Koreans cannot travel abroad. To add some more vocal support to the 50 lucky ones who probably never before saw the outside world, the North Korean FA recruited some Chinese people who were invited to travel to South Africa and pretend to be devote North Korea football fans.

Another two oddities were already seen before the team’s opening game with Brazil: the national coach Kim Jong-Hun (a member of the Communist Party as it was told) tried to bypass the rules of FIFA stating every squad at the World Cup needed 3 goalkeepers amongst the 23 players. Kim Jung-Hun selected striker Kim Myong-Won as goalkeeper with the intention to add another striker to his squad instead of a third choice goalkeeper. FIFA however noticed the trick and accepted his selection but with the command he could only be fielded as a goalkeeper, a role he was never trained for. Weither it is true he did once play as goalie in the DPRK League and is an excellent penalty stopper is another thing we cannot verify, it either is a lucky coincidence or a nice fairytale to avoid embarrasment when the coach’s trick failed.
Also the press conference prior to the game with Brazil proved to be controversial. Although is was communicated political questions would not be accepted, the coach had an anger outburst when a South Korean journalist asked about the tactics of his team, thereby using an unofficial name of the country which could be translated as "territory to be conquered". While the coach’s anger to such term is understandable, the quote that his team would try their best to make the Leader proud, raised eyebrows.
Later on it was told that the coach was in direct communication with Kim Jung-Il himself through an invisible phone which the Dear Leader developped himself (no, this is not made up, this story was really made public… I guess the opinion of the rest of the world was irrelevant to the fact that many North Korean citizens will have believed this).

While being eliminated with 3 losses and a 1-12 goal difference, the team did cause a very emotional moment: prior to the game against Brazil, striker Jong Tae-Se (the one who had lived and played in Japan all his life until then) could not hold his tears during the playing of the North Korean anthem. For sure this has to be said: the team showed determination and love for their country like few other teams’ players did.

Stories tell that the team, upon returning to Pyongyang, was humiliated in public for 6 hours, and that the coach was sacked from the Communist Party and forced into construction works. Reports also claimed some players were tortured as punishment for the bad display in the World Cup. Contradicting reports state the players enjoyed a week’s holiday in Bejing after the tournament, shopped a lot for their families, and then returned to North Korea without any form of punishment. It must be said that probably the last version is the correct one: FIFA investigated the case and found not a single proof of any punishment of the players, and several of them are now playing at the Asian Cup as this article is written. Seems indeed that no corporal or other punishments were enforced on them. Maybe the humiliating comments, but it is highly unlikely that anyone was tortured. The story as if they were seems a portion of western imagination. Also, a few players benefitted from the world cup nonetheless: Jong Tae-Se, a star in the Japanese league and North Korean national team, got his dreamt-of transfer to Europe and now plays for German second divisionist VfL Bochum, while Cha Jong-Hyok left the North Korean domestic league to play for Swiss second division team FC Wil.

We are now January 2011 as this article is written, and North Korea is as we speak represented in Qatar where the 2011 Asian Cup is held. No less than 16 players selected for the World Cup last year, are in the Asian Cup 2011 selection of 23 players as well. If the players really were tortured, this would be impossible, especially since in the game versus UAE they looked in excellent condition. None of them seemed as if they were abused physically whatsoever. That said, while they were again running a lot and showing excellent physical condition, the earlier image was confirmed: physically very well, but not very secure with the ball. The team again passed the ball around as if they did not know what to do with it. They created only few chances, and in the end the game finished 0-0. Things may have been different if captain Hong Yong-Jo converted an early penalty after a clear foul on Jong Tae-Se. Hong however hit the crossbar with that spot kick. Other than that, the UAE defense and goalie were rarely threatened. On the other side, Ri (who played horribly at the World Cup) proved he maybe wasn’t such a dramatic goalkeeper at all as he was in excellent condition and saved extremely well on at least 3 excellent Emirati chances. One of those saves was a header from close range perfectly well into the corner in the dying minutes of the game, with Ri diving the ball out of the corner, an excellent save that at least delivered the North Koreans a point. But as much as they seemed dedicated to defend their country, and as much as they were running very well, their technique and self confidence will need to rise if they will want to proceed to the next stage. The next opposition are Iraq and Iran, who likely will be a lot better than the Emirati team.

The stadium in Qatar for DPRK-UAE by the way looked quite empty and this wasn’t the fault of the Emiratis: a lot of colourfully dressed UAE fans were on the stands. For North Korea we only saw a 40 or 50 fans waving the flags, all dressed identically in suits and ties. Either army staff or diplomats, Zainichi Koreans, or again Chinese folks hired to act as North Korean fans? Another of the countless question marks.

Let’s hope the team does well in the rest of the tournament and hopefully qualifies for the second round of the Asian Cup. Because, and maybe I am naive again to believe and hope this, a good performance of the team may bring some pride to the North Korean people who live in difficult circumstances, and who knows even can improve the diplomatical situation of the isolated country.

The national stadium tends to be, for most games (and league games??) the Kim Il Sung Stadium in Pyongyang, with capacity 70000. 4 more giant stadiums exist in the capital, including the 150000 capacity Rungrado May Day Stadium. This is used only occasionally by the national team and is mostly used for the Mass Games and other events in which the Juche ideology and the "Great Leader" and "Dear Leader" are celebrated. Nonetheless, this stadium is the biggest stadium in the world by some statistics (depending on criteria used) and even the stadium mostly used for the national team’s games, the Kim Il Sung Stadium, holds 70000.

Before closing this article: the contrast between the averagely performing men’s team is in stark contrast with the North Korean women’s team which is amongst the best in Asia. All professional players, the North Korean ladies won the Under-20 World Cup in 2006 (!) and were crowned Asian Champions three times: 2001, 2003 and 2008. Unlike the men’s national team, the women’s team are all North Korean natives without Zainichi’s involved.

The Kim Il Sung Stadium:

Further reading:

The world famous image of the anthem played prior to Brazil-North Korea, with Jong Tae-Se in tears:

An article about the country itself will be published later on in my blog. For this article on the football side, I thank Wikipedia and RSSSF for the little information available (to verify all info is close to impossible due to the lack of options to contact people within the country).

About thepathslesstravelled

An Aspie who has had a lifelong fascination with travelling, discovering new cultures and discovering new ways of life, and with a strange attraction to the less known and often forgotten places in the world. And very obsessed with sports and music.
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1 Response to North Korean football: the big mystery of FIFA football

  1. Hal says:

    Fascinating article, I look forward to further reading on this subject. I also have taken a keen interest in this nation and also South Korea.

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