North Korea at the World Cup
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North Korean football: Separating fact from fiction

Legend has it that an 18-year-old Kim Jong Il once scored with a back-heel from inside his own half. This was in the afternoon after a round of golf was completed in 18 shots. North Korea currently has worse press than Donald Trump. Between launching missiles and allowing their own people to starve, the ‘Supreme Leader’ is always creating headlines.

What about the beautiful game? North Korea play football at an international level. Unfortunately they don’t have a team of Kim Jong Il’s so are usually hammered by decent opposition. FIFA has a strict rule of no politics in the ‘beautiful game’. No poppies, no 1916 rising jerseys and no talk of rats being eaten by the famished North Koreans.

north korea football photo

A brief international history

The first ‘Supreme Leader’, Kim Il-Sung, took power in 1948.  Their close ties to the Soviet Union gavethem unprecedented power. Two years after his inauguration, Kim Il-Sung decided to invade South Korea. While that didn’t go so well, he would remain in power, as the ‘Premier’ and then ‘President’ of North Korea for a further 44 years.

1966 World Cup

Their emergence as an international force in football came at the 1966 World Cup. Nobody really wanted them there. It was a political nightmare. The British Foreign Office was later revealed to have issues a memo stating:

”The simplest way to solve the problem might be to refuse visas to the North Korean team.But if we do this the consequences could be very serious. Apparently Fifa has made it very plain to the FA that if any team has won its way through to the finals is denied visas then the finals will take place elsewhere. ”This would be a disaster for the FA. You can imagine what the papers would make of this.’ ‘We would be accused of dragging politics into sport, sabotaging British interests and so on”

North Korean football: A political storm

North Korea has qualified after beating Australia twice in their qualifying group of  only two teams. South Africa were banned due to apartheid (FIFA had to draw a line somewhere), while South Korea couldn’t handle the logistical problems of travelling to Cambodia to participate in the qualifying tournament.

Even though North Korea had beaten Australia 9-2 over their two matches, expectations were extremely low. They opened their account with a 0-3 drubbing at the hands of their close allies, Soviet Union. They then drew 1-1 with Chile. This meant that they needed to beat two-time World Cup winners, Italy.

north korea football photo

The shock of the century

North Korea played all three group games at Middlesbrough’s old ground, Ayresome Park. Pak Do-Ik described how he scored the only goal in a momental victory over the Azzurri:

“When I scored that goal the people of Middlesbrough took us to their hearts. I learnt that playing football can improve diplomatic relations and promote peace”

Daniel Gordon made a documentary in the 1990’s about the exploits of the North Koreans. It featured some of the players from the 1966 winning side and they still had fond memories of their time in the North East of England:

“And the players were really delighted because they thought they had been forgotten about by the rest of the world. The first thing one of them said to me was: ‘Is the mayor of Middlesbrough still alive?’ – I knew there was a strong bond but didn’t think it would have lasted that long.”

Eusebio ends their bid

The Portuguese legend was the only reason that North Korea didn’t progress further. They had already become the first team from Asia to advance to the knock-out stages of a World Cup. When the fancied Portuguese side went 3-0 down inside 25 minutes, the semi-finals beckoned. Eusebio then woke up and saved Portugal. Unfortunately, four goals from ‘the Black Panther’ and another from Augusto sent North Korea back to Pyongyang.

From heroes to hell

According to the memoir, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, by Kang Chol-hwan, the players were imprisoned in the North Korean camps when they returned home. Their fondness for a few drinks in Middlesbrough was apparently their downfall. After beating Italy 1-0, they went on a bit of a bender. This didn’t do down too well with the ‘Supreme Leader’. Kang explained the logic behind their punishment:

“In Pyongyang, the national team’s barroom antics were judged bourgeois, reactionary, and corrupted by imperialism and bad ideas. “Upon arriving back in Korea, the whole team save for Park Douik – who was suffering from stomach pains on the night of the party, was sent to the camps.”

north korea football photo

2010 Return

North Korea qualified second to their rivals in the South. They would play their second ever World Cup. There would be no fairy-tale in South Africa. Drawn in the group of death, the North Koreans were beaten 3-0 by the Ivory Coast before being hammered 7-0 by their old nemesis, Portugal. Fears for the player’s safety upon returning back to their homeland perhaps explained Brazil’s leniency in their 2-1 win.

Four players had ‘disappeared’ from the squad before their final match against the Brazilians. Kim Jong Il was clearly not impressed. The coach was sentenced to hard labour in a camp. Other players were allegedly tortured. Sepp Blatter, the humanitarian, decided the best thing was to send a letter:

‘We sent a letter to the football federation to tell us about their election of a new president and to find out if the allegations made by the media that the coach and some players were condemned and punished are true.’We are doing this as a first step and we will see how they answer.’

It’s unclear whether they got a response or if a second ‘strongly worded letter’ was sent.

Current Ranking

North Korea’s current World Ranking with FIFA is 116. They’re sandwiched between Oman and Equatorial Guinea. Kim Jong Il may need to dust off the boots. On the domestic scene, not much is known. The DPR Korea League was founded in 2010. Footage on YouTube appears to show a game between two sides:

The future

Recent news stories claimed that North Korea could end up co-hosting the 2030 World Cup. Russia, Qatar, ?, North Korea doesn’t seem impossible. They could perhaps negotiate by stopping missile tests? Sensationalist news stories aside, should North Korea be allowed to play at the pinnacle of international football? Should politics and football never mix, or do we need to draw a line somewhere? Let us know by voting below:

Next article: Standing with Muntari in the fight against racism

Main Image: REUTERS/Christian Charisius.

Photo by George M. Groutas

Photo by (stephan)

Photo by George M. Groutas

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