Part Two of our look at the mysterious world of North Korean football.
By James Montague
The North Korean players are almost complete unknowns outside their own country thanks to a ban on players travelling and joining foreign teams. Only those of Korean heritage who were born in Japan (Zainichi) have the right to play their club football overseas. One such member of the national side is Ahn Young-hak, who, oddly, plays in South Korea for Suwon Samsung Bluewings.
Banning players from travelling abroad isn’t that unusual, with Saudi Arabia having long frowned upon its best players leaving the confines of the Sunni kingdom, fearing that exposure to the excesses of the West can only corrupt their best players.
Stranger, though, is the story of North Korea’s travelling fans.
Back in Dubai, as the teams emerged for the second half, one stand, full of North Koreans, erupted in joy. Despite almost all North Koreans being banned from having a passport, the DPRK’s barmy army numbered over 1,500 with the men dressed in dour, traditional farmer’s attire, while the women – who were segregated from the men – wore colourful dresses and clapped together small planks of wood held to their hands by orange ribbon.
And all of the Koreans in the crowd – who outnumbered their disinterested, white-robed hosts by 15 to 1 – wore a badge emblazoned with the profile of their “dear leader”, Kim Jong-il.
Where these supporters had come from was anyone’s guess, and none of the crowd would talk given that they were being monitored by a line of black-suited officials who stood at the front of the stand, their backs to the action, clearly monitoring the crowd’s patriotism rather than the action on the pitch.
As soon as the match had finished – North Korea lost 1-0 – the visiting fans silently filed onto a herd of buses, fixed with bars on the windows.
While North Korea coach Yun Jong-su gave no clues in his post-match press conference as to who these fans were or where they came from, he was open about an issue that is at the heart of the Korean psyche: unification.
“We are two teams but we are the same blood, the same nation,” he told the awaiting press when I asked what would happen if both North and South qualified for the finals.
“At the moment we are separate, and I hope both teams can qualify for the World Cup. If we do, the two teams could be unified and go together as one.”
As preparations begin for next summer, the issue is bound to rear its head again, even as North and South see-saw between brinkmanship and detente. Even in South Korea the issue has, in the past, excited the footballing authorities. FIFA vice-president Chung Mong-joon – who is a former South Korean presidential candidate – pushed for North Korean players to be included in a unified team before his country co-hosted the 2002 World Cup. In 2006 a joint team would have caused a political storm.
Today, with the DPRK even more isolated after continuing its missile-testing programme and promising to turn the USA into a nuclear wasteland if its sovereignty is impinged, their appearance will make Iran’s 2006 sojourn to Germany – where the team were met with large protests from Jewish groups demanding their withdrawal following president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s holocaust denial – look like a squabble at a Parish council meeting in comparison.
One thing’s for sure: you won’t see a repeat of the quaint adulation heaped on the team of 1966. Instead, there will be the noise of a small, mysterious crowd of patriotic men and women dressed as if they’ve just stepped out of the 1950s. Watched by a phalanx of silent, black-suited men, of course.