The national team of the Stalinist state have qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1966, but little is known about them
By James Montague
Almost immediately I realised I had made a mistake. A room full of confused eyes blinked back at me as I stood in the harshly lit, white-tiled room, full of the humid smell of sweat. It was an unseasonably warm November in 2004, half-time in the bowels of the Al-Rashid Stadium in Dubai.
North Korea were playing a World Cup qualifying match against the United Arab Emirates in a dead rubber, having already reached the final round of Asian qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. The finals were tantalisingly close but then, like now, few knew anything about football in the secretive state.
Phone calls to the team hotel went unanswered. When I did get through they simply hung up. So I chanced my arm by turning up at the match in Dubai, where security is notoriously lax, and tried a random door. It turned out to be the dressing room.
The coach, Yun Jong-su, sat silently with his players, heads bowed, as two men in black suits wearing earpieces stood shouting instructions. Clearly the team’s motivational talk was coming from a higher power. It took a few moments for the men to realise there was a stranger in the room, the players’ focus shifting towards the open door and the stranger who had invaded their inner sanctum. The two men swivelled and went silent.
The Mexican stand-off didn’t last long; two security agents bundling me out after a few awkward moments. It was the closest I had got to the North Korea national team for four days and I was no nearer to discovering anything about a football team every bit as secretive as its leadership.
Fast forward to 2009 and the Koreans have gone one step further, qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since their romantic appearance in England in 1966, leaving the world baffled as to who they are and why they seem to be able to grind out 0-0 draws almost at will.
The national team seems to have soaked up the characteristics of their environment: a battling, limpet-like side, prone to stalemates, who are tough to beat and punching well above their weight internationally.
Yet whatever it is that the North Koreans are doing domestically seems to be working. As surely one of the few international institutions still allowed to invest in the pariah state, FIFA has pumped money into the country’s pitches and infrastructure, bringing impressive results, especially in the women’s game. North Korea’s female Under-17s and Under-20s have won their respective World Cups, reaching the Final of the Under-20s again last year, while the seniors, who are ranked fifth in the world, made the World Cup quarter-finals in China in 2007.
But Korea’s story is, of course, a political one as much as a footballing one, and the game has been blighted by the geopolitical tensions that dominate the North and South. With both countries still technically at war, FIFA’s fixtures computer managed to throw the two countries together in both the penultimate and final round of qualifying, producing a litany of political flare-ups.
First the DPRK welcomed the chance to host their southern brothers in Pyongyang – just so long as they didn’t have to play their national anthem. The South refused and – after some grandstanding from the North who threatened to boycott the game – the match was moved to Shanghai. The most bizarre incident, however, came earlier this year when South Korea beat North Korea 1-0 in Seoul.
Accusations flew that the DPRK players had been deliberately poisoned and that the referee was biased in favour of the hosts. Apparently, it was all proof of a dastardly plot by the new South Korean leadership to undermine the North’s political leadership. “The match thus turned into a theatre of plot-breeding and swindling,” read a statement from North Korea’s official press agency.
Part two tomorrow