"North Korea will win the World Cup"

The battle cry of football’s next superpower or a deluded rant from a nation run by propaganda? Neil Billingham visits the world’s most secretive state...

Well-seasoned travellers are used to being woken up in the morning by noise. In Africa the pandemonium comes from the hustle and bustle of daily life that begins at sunrise; in the Middle East it’s the piercing and emotive prayer call.

This sound is different. The stirring, triumphal music that begins at 7am is punctuated with stern-sounding speeches from a male speaker and cheerful, upbeat messages from a woman. The hubbub lasts for an hour and a half.

Every morning begins like this in North Korea. From the moment you arrive you are bombarded with propaganda, including huge roadside posters declaring ‘Death to the US imperialists’ and ‘Our missile programme is a guarantee for world peace and security’ and colossal war memorials and statues.

For a state that zealously honours its heroes, the only surprise is that there are no posters, monuments or recent media coverage dedicated to North Korea’s latest stars – the national football team. For on June 17, after a 0-0 draw in Riyadh, North Korea secured qualification for the World Cup finals for the first time since 1966. They did so at the expense of Asian heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Iran, and on their return to Pyongyang the squad were given a hero’s reception.

Dictatorships have a nasty habit of using football to promote their regimes, but five months after the team’s triumph in the Middle East it appears that leader Kim Jong-Il has yet to make the most of the achievement. His preferred weapon of propaganda at the moment is of course the nuclear one and, in May, North Korea claimed to have successfully tested a nuclear weapon as powerful as the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945.

So far, by comparison, the country’s historic qualification to the 2010 World Cup has been a low-key affair, but that didn’t deter FourFourTwo from visiting the nation that is described as the most secretive and secluded on the planet.

The national team are due to play a friendly match against a Brazilian team from Sao Paulo and, while this is hardly a must-see fixture in Planet Football’s calendar of events, it could be the only opportunity to witness North Korea playing in their own country before the World Cup in June.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, to give it the official title, doesn’t have the most restricted media in the world (Eritrea holds that accolade), but reporting from the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ is far from easy. On arrival at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport our laptops, mobile phones and personal cameras are taken off us by stony-faced customs officials with absurdly wide-brimmed military hats, seemingly straight out of a James Bond movie. The items are placed in clear plastic bags.

For a reporter it’s a strange feeling of nakedness to be without a laptop and mobile phone – and assurances that we will be able to pick everything up on our return don’t make the feeling any more palatable. Our official photographer is allowed his camera but he will be severely restricted in what he can and can’t snap. We are given two guides, both from the North Korea FA, and both will be by our side from the start of our trip to the end.

Unsurprisingly, our first stop is the monument to North Korea’s founder: the Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung, who died in 1994 and whose 60-foot bronze statue is the most popular tourist site in North Korea. Not that many tourists come here. Around 1,500 westerners visit every year, most of them during the Mass Games in September when tens of thousands perform a choreographed dance routine with gymnasts and children holding coloured cards.

Other sites we are taken to are the Arch of Triumph, the Juche Tower and the Korean War Museum, while football doesn’t even get mentioned by our guides. “We will start the football tomorrow,” says Kim Jong-Su, the 
FA’s director of international relations.

1966 and all thatEnglish football may constantly hark back to 1966, but it was also North Korea’s finest hour. From their Middlesbrough base, the team defeated Italy in their final group match and reached further than any Asian team had done before. Pak Doo-Ik’s solitary goal at Ayresome Park propelled them into the quarter-finals and sent the Azzurri home to a barrage of rotten tomatoes. Some 44 years later, the North Korean players from 1966 are still feted as heroes and FourFourTwo’s next appointment in Pyongyang is with four of them.

Again, the meeting is massively stage-managed. First we are taken with the players to the statue of the Great Leader, where they lay wreaths. Two of the players are wearing full military uniform, covered in medals. The other two also have a mass of medals but have civilian clothes.

After the flowers are laid we are taken to the Kim Il-Sung Stadium to conduct interviews with players from the 1966 side and today’s team. The questions for all the interviews had to be submitted well in advance of our visit and while this isn’t uncommon, even when interviewing top players in Europe, the nature of the answers is peculiar in the extreme.

First up is a frail and nervous-looking Pak Doo-Ik, who sits down gripping onto some sheets of paper before telling the translator that he is ready. The first question is an innocuous one about the 1966 World Cup. “I still remember with great fondness the passion that the people of England showed towards our team,” says the striker. “We couldn’t imagine that we could beat Italy...”

Mid-sentence, Pak Doo-Ik stops talking, turns to the translator and asks if he can start again. He then takes his glasses off, squints down at the sheet of paper for 30 seconds, puts his glasses back on and tells the translator he is ready. His answers are clearly pre-prepared and have probably been vetted. At 67, Pak Doo-Ik’s memory clearly isn’t as sharp as his ability in front of goal was 44 years ago, and he struggles to remember what he’s supposed to be saying.

Other interviews are equally odd. The coach of the current national team, Kim Jong-Hun, gives a variety of party-line responses like “thanks to the mercy of our Dear Leader I did a good job as national team coach,” before getting the translator to ask us about Sven Goran-Eriksson.

“Is Eriksson still at Notts County?” the translator asks on behalf of the coach. “Not any more,” we reply, but the interrogation continues, “So, do you think he is interested in coaching North Korea?” The vice president of the North Korea FA, Son Kwang-Ho, tells us that: “North Korea will win the World Cup,” and “it is because of the great support of our Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il that our national team will make this great achievement.”

It's grim up north It’s not easy trying to get a clear picture of what life is like in North Korea. Like the interviews we do, everything is staged. From the stunning female traffic cops who are allegedly hand-picked by Kim Jong-Il, to the propaganda radios fitted in every home that can’t be turned off, everything is designed to give the impression that this is a thriving, buoyant and successful country. Quite something for a nation that is described as having one of the worst human rights record in the world and in the early 1990s saw nearly two million people die of starvation.

Thankfully, trying to get an honest picture of the capacity and capabilities of the country’s football team is much easier. The team’s performances in the two group phases of World Cup qualifying were certainly impressive, albeit based on a stingy defence that conceded only five goals in the whole campaign. That said, they only scored 12 times in those 14 matches and given they have been drawn in the ‘group of death’ with Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast, their prospects for South Africa look pretty bleak.

Their friendly match against Atletico Sorocaba in Pyongyang’s Kim Il-Sung Stadium doesn’t provide any evidence to contradict that view. The Brazilian side play in Sao Paulo’s second division but the South Americans are the better side in a fairly tame 0-0 draw.

North Korea are, in fairness, missing their three overseas players. The majority of the team play in the domestic league (which has 15 non-professional clubs) but their three stars ply their trade overseas: midfielder Ahn Young-Hak and striker Jong Tae-Se play and live in Japan courtesy of having grandparents who moved there during Japan’s occupation between 1910 and 1945.

The star of the national team, however, is captain and striker Hong Yong-Jo, who was the top scorer in World Cup qualifying. While playing for Pyongyang’s April 25, he attracted interest from Spurs and several clubs in Germany, but the government refused to sanction any transfer to a Western club.

A move to Serbia’s FK Bezanija was seen as more palatable and after a year in Belgrade he moved to Russia’s FC Rostov. “Football in North Korea is getting stronger every year”, he says. “Our youth teams are doing very well, our women’s team has been very successful and now we have qualified for the World Cup. We will go to South Africa full of confidence and hoping that we can do our nation proud.”

It’s hard to see any evidence of this at today’s match. It is played in a very strange atmosphere. The stadium is full to its 80,000 capacity, and such is the lack of information that many fans turn up thinking they are watching the Brazil national team.

However, even that doesn’t make for a fervent atmosphere – rarely have so many people produced so little noise. Instead, the match is like watching a Cirque du Soleil performance – periods of virtual silence with sudden bursts of applause when either side strings an impressive move together.

There's no half-time entertainment, just a propaganda video on the stadium’s big screen. The game ends with yet another burst of applause, the players politely swap shirts, the Brazilians leave the pitch, get onto their bus 
and return to their hotel before heading back to Sao Paulo via Beijing.

Atletico Sorocaba’s vice-president Waldir Cipriani agrees to speak to FourFourTwo, but only on the club’s safe return to Brazil. “You had to be very careful what you said out there,” says Cipriani. “When I spoke to people I always said how beautiful the mountains and the flowers were.

"Of course I couldn’t say ‘your buildings are ugly and your cars are backward’ because you or your guides could get into trouble. We were in North Korea for four days and in that time we weren’t allowed to make phone calls or use the internet and at night there was no electricity in our hotel. It was unbelievable.”

Brazil’s national team coach Dunga has since been in contact with Atletico’s Sorocaba’s coach about the North Korea team, but Cipriani has no fears for the Selecao. “OK, so they had three of their best players missing,” says Cipriani. “I still think they will find it hard to even score a goal in South Africa.”

Despite the bold predictions of the North Korea FA, their team is likely to struggle to make any kind of impact in June. Given how tough their group is, there is a realistic possibility that the odd thumping could come their way. Which begs the question – how will the North Korean government deal with their team’s participation in South Africa?

In 2002, when neighbours South Korea co-hosted the World Cup the matches weren’t shown on TV and, on the morning of South Korea’s third-place match against Turkey, a North Korean gunboat attacked a South Korean patrol boat, resulting in 18 deaths. Eight years later, it seems inevitable that the Pyongyang regime will exploit their team’s involvement on the world stage this summer.

But how? Will it only permit media or TV coverage if the team plays well? Or will it again fan the flames of its nuclear programme to distract from poor performances on the football pitch? It’s impossible to say – and when it comes to guessing what will happen in North Korea this summer, the only thing you can expect is the unexpected.

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