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North Korea focus

A World of opportunity awaits Jong

July 3, 2010
By John Duerden

Since being labelled the 'The People's Rooney' by the Seoul media in 2008, Jong Tae-Se has always said that he prefers to be compared to Didier Drogba than the Manchester United man. As the final whistle sounded in Nelspruit on June 25 to signal a 3-0 win for Ivory Coast and the end of North Korea's 2010 World Cup campaign, Jong made a beeline for the Chelsea striker just as he bore down on goal whenever he had the chance over 270 minutes of South African action.

Jong Tae-Se cannot hold back the tears during the North Korea national anthem
GettyImagesJong Tae-Se could not hold back the tears during North Korea's national anthem before they faced Brazil

The African idol refused to swap shirts, throwing his white top into the crowd, leaving Jong to settle for Salomon Kalou. The forward, born and raised in Japan to Korean parents and schooled in the pro-northern education system, may not have got the souvenir he wanted at the World Cup and may not have achieved the target he set of a goal a game. Yet while a likely move to Bochum in Germany may not be exactly the big European move he had in mind, this summer has been a turning point in his career and that of North Korean football in general.

Much has changed since I sat down with the 26-year-old in March in Japan where he plays his club football for leading J-League team Kawasaki Frontale. Then, Jong was dressed to kill in Armani shoes. When he left the pitch after the Ivory Coast defeat, he was barefooted and limping. As we spoke after the match, it was clear that this was a man who had given his all.

His tears during the national anthem ahead of North Korea's opener against Brazil became an instant iconic image and, as they were immediately followed by a highly impressive performance against the five-time world champions, Jong became an overnight star, a throwback to World Cups of yore when little-known players burst on to the global scene. He presented a new face of North Korea to the world that, for a while at least, replaced that of dictator Kim Jong-Il.

Coach Kim Jong-Hun's attacking policy may have made Jong as isolated as his adopted nation has become among the international community due to the Dear Leader's defence policy but the footballer's work-rate, movement and physical strength gave the Brazil backline, especially Lucio, much to think about on that freezing night in Johannesburg.

The samba scribes, shivering in the stands, were also chewing on their metaphorical pencils. Before the game, those Brazilian journalists at Ellis Park all told me that an easy win was on the cards with one even going for 7-0. The eventual 2-1 victory for the South Americans did not flatter their Asian opponents and Jong was their key man.

Having watched the player, who used to train in a Blackburn Rovers shirt when at high school, for club and country over the past three years since he burst onto the Asian scene, his exploits came as no surprise. I saw him cry during the anthem against South Korea in a Shanghai qualifier in March 2008 and his passion on the pitch has always been evident. Jong tries hard, sometimes too hard. Frustration at failings, whether of his own making, or his team-mates', is Rooney-esque, though the head never goes down.

Naturally, the spotlight dimmed somewhat after the 7-0 thrashing meted out by Portugal and, though Jong came close to that all-important goal late in the game against Ivory Coast, it never happened. The move to Europe, however, looks like it is about to.

North Korea has made noises recently about encouraging players to head overseas in a bid to combat the national team's weakness - a lack of international experience. This has happened to a certain extent in sports such as volleyball but, of the 23 in South Africa, only the Japan-born pair of Jong and midfielder An Yong-Hak plus Hong Yong-Jo plied their trade outside North Korea. Hong, who plays for FC Rostov in Russia, is different as he was born and raised north of the 38th Parallel. When such a player heads to Western Europe, that really will be a story. For now, though, the export of Jong is a significant first step.

Jong Tae-Se could not deliver his promise of scoring in each game
GettyImagesJong Tae-Se could not deliver his promise of scoring in each game

He has made no secret of his desire to play in England and visited there early in 2010 to take a look at Blackburn Rovers and vice versa. What he came away with, he told me later, was not just a positive image of the man he called 'Big Sam' and an avid appreciation of the technical abilities of Rovers' Croatian striker Nikola Kalinic but the feeling that he wasn't quite ready for the move. It would have been an interesting one. There are not many things that Blackburn share with Kawasaki apart from the fact that they both play in halved shirts (light blue and black for Frontale) but the physical presence of Jong would seem suited to Sam Allardyce.

There is still time for English intervention, but not much. Japanese media reports that a deal with Bochum is imminent. Germany's second tier is not the stage that Jong would have chosen to make his European bow but, as well as being ambitious, he is intelligent. During various media appearances in South Africa he answered questions in whatever language they were asked, as long as they were in Japanese, Korean, English or, handily in the case of Group G, Portuguese, picked up from Brazilian club colleagues.

He also knows that time is on his side. A move to Bochum, a club that has signed Asian stars such as Japan midfielder Shinji Ono and Iranian striker Vahid Hashemian in the recent past before relegation last May, is a big step for both player and North Korean football.

Jong finally arrived back in Tokyo on July 2 via Pyongyang, one of the rare occasions he has visited the city by the Taedong River when not playing football for the Chollima. He spoke of the warm reception given to the team despite their three losses half a world away. In Japan, too, he was soon signing shirts and boarding passes as Narita Airport. His signature is also in demand in Europe and it promises to signal the start of an exciting new chapter in an already fascinating story.