England can learn from North Korea

As a short, fat chap with a natty line in witticisms and winning World Wars once said: “success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

But nobody seems to have told that to the unfortunate nations trailing home with their Jabulanis between their legs after underwhelming World Cup performances.

Many squads have been granted a ‘welcome home’ fit for a nonce ring carrying petri–dishes full of the H1N1 virus, and the levels of head-hanging and brow-beating have reached an unprecedented 8.6 on the Ian Beale Scale.

England haven’t even led the way. Sure, the tabloids have gone to town as our underachieving footy berks have committed the horrific sins of SMILING AS THEY SEE THEIR CHILDREN, GOING OUT FOR A NICE MEAL and ARROGANTLY BREATHING IN AND OUT. And a survey recently revealed that 62% of people are ‘ashamed to be English’ in the wake of the South African debacle. But that’s small beer compared to what’s been going on elsewhere around the globe.

The defeated champions, Italy, for example, were greeted by angry scenes upon their arrival at Fiumicino airport. You’ve got to admire a hate mob that can be bothered getting up at seven in the morning to vent its spleen, and 100 or so vexed Romans pounced on Marcello Lippi’s car, unleashing a cavalcade of vile abuse and rude hand gestures (the Italians are still the undoubted world champions of rude hand gestures, mind: they even have one that means “your mother slept with the whole village.”) “There’s a lot of bitterness,” acknowledged striker Fabio Quagliarella sheepishly. “But we understand how the fans feel.”

Meanwhile, in France, the hilarious carnival of self-destruction shows no sign of abating. The French League (LFP) has called for the entire French Football Federation (FFF) to resign. Tiny President Nicolas Sarkozy has scampered into the mix, calling for “explanations” and asking to “speak to the players personally,” while the players continue to lambast each other and question Raymond Domenech’s parentage.

Nigeria, however, have topped the lot. Their President – the incredibly-monikered Goodluck Jonathan – suspended the entire team from taking part in any international competition for two years. FIFA then gave Nigeria 24 hours to reverse the decision, otherwise they’d be expelled from world football.

You have to feel for the players here: it’s a bit like a child who has been unfairly sent to his room then getting nailed to the bed. And FIFA’s “stop refusing to play football, or we won’t let you play football” line is reminiscent of the American joke about unarmed British police: “stop… or I’ll shout stop again.”

History has thrown up even worse examples. In 2000, the Ivory Coast’s players were held for three days in a military detention camp – punishment by the country’s dictator due to a meagre showing at the African Cup of Nations.

The Elephant men were forced to perform squat thrusts and drill parades, as well as attend lectures on team unity and discipline. And then of course there was the Iraq team under the demented rule of Saddam’s son Uday Hussain, for whom thumb-screws and electrodes were the primary motivational tool. One poor lad even got his perm shaved off.

All of which brings us inevitably to North Korea. “I wouldn’t want to be one of their relatives today,” we muttered to each other as Portugal rained down goals upon the key Axis of Evil members. But it seems our fears for the plucky lads who ground out a commendable 2-1 loss to Brazil were perhaps unfounded.

“I think you are mistaken,” muttered coach Kim Jong-Hun – a man you definitely wouldn’t want to play poker against – when it was suggested that there would be “consequences” for his team’s failure when they returned home.

And indeed, the pro-Pyongyang newspaper Choson Sinbo reported that the players arrived home “stoney-faced” but “regained their smiles after being welcomed by their families and supporters crowding the airport.” And if the shadowy state’s media mouthpiece is reporting the story in such a way, it’s a fair bet that the squad – thumbs and spines still in tact – will live to fight another tournament. Heartening news.

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose or it doesn't turn out the way you want,” said coach Jong-Hun. “but if it doesn't turn out the way we want, there will be no further consequences for that.”

Amazing as it might sound, it might just be time for the English, French and Italians to learn a lesson from North Korea.

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