North Korea once again demonstrated its ability to hog the international headlines with its rocket launch this week, in defiance of the international community. But in sporting terms, Pyongyang is taking a more co-operative approach with the rest of the world. When it comes to football, the regime sees engagement as the key to success.
At the 2010 World Cup, the “Hermit Nation” was treated almost as a normal country. For once, it wasn’t all about Kim Jong-Il or nuclear weapons – it was just about 11 men on the pitch playing against 11 others from somewhere else.
Of course, North Korea being North Korea, it wasn’t completely normal. The absence of four players from a team sheet led to reports of defections, and then there were equally wild claims that the team had been subject to all kinds of humiliation upon their return to Pyongyang after three defeats in three matches.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
There was little evidence of that actually happening, but one thing was for sure – the country wanted to return to the global stage as soon as possible.
The military was put in charge of the international arm of the football federation, and more players from the secretive side of the 38th Parallel were sent overseas to get that vital ingredient – international experience (and, according to those of a more cynical bent, some hard currency).
As well as Jong Tae Se at FC Koln in Germany’s Bundesliga, and Hong Yong-Jo in Russia, Pak Kwang-Ryong has played in the UEFA Champions League this season for FC Basel and Cha Jong-Hyok is also in Switzerland with FC Wil. In Denmark, there’s Ri Myong Jun and Jong Il Ju.
With the likes of Ryang Yong-Gi and An Yong-Hak in Japan, North Korea could, in theory at least, field a starting 11 in which the majority of the lineup is based overseas.
That won’t happen at the 2014 World Cup, as the team has been eliminated from qualification. I talked to An following the failure, and he put it down to not enough time to prepare for games.
“After the World Cup, we brought in a lot of new players. Around half the team was changed and five or six young players joined the team,” An said. “The problem we had was just one of preparation. We hadn’t enough time to prepare and get our teamwork up to scratch. All the new players are very good, but we just needed more time to play together and get to know each other.”
“In fact, as the games progressed we were improving a little every game and getting better all the time so it is very frustrating that we ran out of time.”
“There’s a little regret about how differently things could have turned out if we had managed to do that from the beginning,” he added.
North Korea did win the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup recently, and booked its spot at the 2015 Asian Cup. Then this new generation of players will really get a chance to show what they have learned in Europe and elsewhere.