Monday, June 14, 2010 ESPNsoccernet: June 13, 12:44 PM UK
Uncovering the North Korean mystery
Of all of the teams to have played at the World Cup finals, few are as secretive as North Korea. Going into their second World Cup after reaching the quarter-finals in 1966, their preparations have been shrouded in mystery, with little known about the players, coach or even what it is like to watch a game inside the country.
• Steve Wilson watches North Korea v South Korea in December 2006
To find out more about the side, a journey to the Qatari capital of Doha (where I had the chance to come into contact with some North Koreans during their friendly tournament-winning exploits in January) had to be undertaken.
During every one of the North Korea games that I attended, a tidily organised block of supporters cheered on their team, chanting with ferocity and generally applauding every good pass, every well-worked move, even every tackle won. In that sense you could compare them to your average English fan. In others you could not.
The first impression I got from my encounters with the coach, some of the players, and a few supporters of the team was that of the extraordinary friendliness they transmitted at all times. Even those who did not understand my questions or were unable to reply in English were extremely helpful in communicating in sign language. So when I asked: 'What do you think about your group containing Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast?', the answer was a smiling thumbs up!
But to get the lowdown on the side from a man who spent months watching them inside North Korea, I turned to Wayne Hay, a journalist with Doha-based Al Jazeera International channel, who had the opportunity to watch Kim-Jong Hun's team on home soil three times during their successful World Cup qualification campaign.
''I went to report on three World Cup qualifiers, all of which were played in Pyongyang against Saudi Arabia, UAE and Iran,'' he said. ''All three were unforgettable. Not many people get the opportunity to travel to North Korea, let alone watch a football match there, so I feel very lucky.''
One of the most interesting things about Hay's experiences was the security concerns. ''Obviously we were well watched in everything that we did in and around the match because we had as many as three minders with us at all times,'' he said. ''They were all extremely friendly and helpful and took us to many 'tourist' sites around the city in the days leading up to the game. On the day of the game they allowed us to film outside the stadium, where thousands of people were milling around.
''These were people who obviously weren't going to the match because most of the crowd was already seated inside the stadium. There were quite a few soldiers outside the venue, and we were told we could film around the area, provided we didn't film the military. What I didn't witness were the usual scenes outside sporting venues around the world. There was no one selling anything, no memorabilia or merchandise available. In this sense, it was like entering a time warp when people simply went to the game to watch a game and then went home, there was nothing in between.''
Without much of a history in the world game, North Korea find themselves thrust into the limelight as only participation in the world's biggest football tournament can do, but Hay believes their passion prepares them well for an event like the World Cup.
''There is definitely a football culture in so much as they love the game and they love their national team,'' he said. ''I haven't been to any club/provincial matches so I don't know if the sort of support that I witnessed is replicated at those games. But the people I managed to speak to about football were very knowledgeable about the national side and who they felt were the best players in their team.
''The people we had contact with on a regular basis were government minders, sent to guide us throughout our visit. Despite the secretive nature of the country, the people who worked with us had generally travelled overseas and had a good knowledge of world affairs, including football. So they were able to talk to us about other football teams and clubs and some of the top names in the game. World Cup qualification was welcomed very well by the fans in Pyongyang. The stadiums were full each time I went and the players are treated as true heroes there.''
From what has been seen in the stands, the North Korean fans are renowned for their highly choreographed displays, but before kick-off the scene is very different.
''The first thing that struck me was how early everyone is in the stadium and seated, almost completely silent about an hour before kickoff,'' Hay said. ''In the winter, most people were dressed in dark coats and hats, making for a visibly drab, yet fascinating scene, reminiscent of sporting occasions in 50s. But as soon as the players made an appearance on the pitch, the silence was broken and the supporters behaved almost like any others around the world.
''There was certainly some choreography and encouragement from one man at the back of one of the stands who had a microphone and was leading chants for the fans on the opposite side of the stadium, but on the whole, the fans reacted like any other set of supporters, and certainly weren't afraid to vocally encourage their team and discourage the opposition. But at the same time, they seemed to be very knowledgeable and fair to both teams. After the games, thousands of supporters wait outside the venue to get a closer glimpse of their heroes as they left on the team bus and at times the scenes we witnessed there were quite chaotic as the supporters surged forward.''
Of course, their rivalry with South Korea will play a part in their profile at the World Cup as months of negotiations have seen the two nations come to the brink of war. Indeed, Hay said that the political tensions are not left at home when the football starts.
''The political tension between these two nations is certainly reflected on the football field. 'I watched the World Cup qualifier between them in Seoul, and while it was fiercely contested, it was a relatively clean game. However afterwards the North Korean delegation claimed some of their players had been poisoned before the match.
''At an official level, North Korea would like nothing more than to achieve a higher level of success on the world stage than their southern brothers. But I'm sure if you spoke to the North Korean players individually they would share a great deal of affinity with the South Korean players.''
Of their hopes in South Africa, Hay is certain that they won't repeat their run in 1966, but believes them to be a welcome addition to the tournament. ''I think they will be competitive in each of their games but they will struggle to match the class of their opposition. 'They are a very sound defensive side, but they really need to score more goals. They rely heavily on Jong Tae-Se up front. He's a very gifted and exciting player but I was left with the impression that he carries a lot of the expectations of his team mates and their supporters.
''Despite their defensive qualities, they are an attractive team to watch. They like to move the ball and they fight until the very end. I don't think they will repeat their heroics of 1966, but they will offer plenty of entertainment.''