The great unknowns of the tournament are unlikely to spring a shock as they did 44 years ago
Mention North Korea and the World Cup in the same breath and the response from most fans is of a similar refrain, soliciting a mention of Pak Doo-ik, Eusebio and the fascinating events that occurred at Ayresome Park during the 1966 World Cup finals.
But 44 years on from that legendary 5-3 quarter-final win for Portugal over the North Korean upstarts, the secretive Stalinist state is back at the World Cup finals once more.
Now, as then, they will go into the tournament not only as massive underdogs but as relative unknowns. In an era when information on almost everything is just a mouse click away, the North Koreans have maintained a wall of secrecy around everything they do.
Even the national news agency, the Korea News Service, seems intent on playing down their sporting achievements, mentioning the nation’s qualification for the World Cup finals with a sparse, three-line story on their website the day after a 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia secured their passage.
But the official response belies the passion for the game in North Korea and – assuming the matches are broadcast live, and of that there can be no guarantee – the country will come to a standstill when Kim Jong-hun and his team take to the field.
Despite the passion, though, there is an appreciation of how difficult the task that
lies ahead is for a side that has barely tasted international football in recent years.
While the North Koreans played in the qualifying tournament for the 2006 World Cup, they did not enter either the 1998 competition or the 2002 event.
That period of isolation – which was only broken when the they took part in the qualifiers for the 2000 Asian Cup – saw the North Koreans engage in a period of coach education and youth development that has ultimately led to them making it to South Africa.
The mid part of the last decade saw the country’s youth teams qualify for various FIFA tournaments as either Asian champions or runners-up, but they are still some way short of the experience needed at international level to be able to truly compete at the World Cup.
Being drawn against Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast has provided them with one of the steepest learning curves possible and it’s hard to imagine the North Koreans still being involved in the competition when the serious action starts in the knockout phase.
The view from North Korea
“Football is the most popular sport in North Korea, it’s the No 1, it’s what everybody talks about, though you won’t hear that in the press. The World Cup will be massive here. It’s very exciting, the North Koreans know exactly what’s going on, there are posters everywhere. They know they’re in a very tough group but it was the same in 1966.
“In the last three years, they’ve started having international TV in North Korea. On Sundays they have a football programme where they show all sorts of international matches – Juventus, Manchester United, Champions League, relatively recent games – but all shown on a time delay. The streets are quiet at the best of times but they are even quieter then. The World Cup games will be shown, though not live.
“The normal story in the West is they are not watching the World Cup because of the humiliation of not qualifying – that’s absolute rubbish.
“There were a lot of stories in the past about the North Koreans having not bought the World Cup TV rights. They may not have done so, but they certainly screened the games, though I’m not sure where they got their access from. The North Koreans were watching all the matches later on, and they were supporting South Korea, too.
“‘Korea is essentially one country. I once went to see China play South Korea in Beijing with a North Korean mate. I suggested we sit with the Chinese fans, but he was horrified. ‘How can I? I’m Korean!’ he said.
“There are a big number of Koreans in Africa, working on various projects, so I suspect they will have a few hundred fans in South Africa. I hope they do what the 1966 team did. They arrived as the enemy, as outsiders, and ended up with the people loving them.”
Nick Bonner, producer of The Game of Their Lives, the award-winning film about the 1966 World Cup team, and a regular visitor to North Korea with his travel company, Koryo Tours