No fans, no luck: spare a thought for North Korea

They did well to qualify and aim just to avoid humiliation. But it's all going wrong already

Robin Scott-Elliot
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:45

The journey started, appropriately enough, in one of football's remotest outposts, the dilapidated National Sports Stadium in Ulaanbaatar, with a fixture against Mongolia. Next stop is the spick and span Ellis Park in Johannesburg a week on Tuesday where the World Cup's men of mystery will reveal themselves in front of 62,000 spectators and millions of global television viewers against the game's historic masters, Brazil.

It threatens to become a chastening experience for the least familiar side in South Africa, but it seems doubtful whether back home in North Korea, one of the world's most controlled nations, the population will have a clue as to the team's fate. No North Korean fans have been allowed to travel to South Africa and the game will not be broadcast live on TV in the country – Kim Jong-il, the "Dear Leader", may let it be shown a couple of days later, although if the outcome is as expected, a one-sided win for Brazil, he is rather more likely to maintain the blackout.

Benito Mussolini is said to have exhorted his Italian players to "win or die" ahead of the 1938 World Cup (they won it) and while no such drastic urgings have been reported from Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, the ultra-defensive mindset of the team is perhaps telling. Humiliation on the pitch is best avoided if their return home is not to be accompanied by similar off it. Unfortunately for Kim Jong-hun's squad they have been cast in the role of sitting duck in the "Group of Death", with Ivory Coast and Portugal the other participants.

The "Dear Leader" is said to have passed on his own tips to the coach as to how to face up to their sporting foes. Kim Jong-il's political doctrine is known as the Juche Idea, which calls for "self-defence in the national defence" and that pretty much sums up the side's approach on the football field too. "We could not have qualified for the World Cup without his support," declared Kim Jong-hun sensibly enough.

In 1966, their last appearance in the finals, they were warmly received in England, particularly in Middlesbrough, but the country returns to football's greatest stage now regarded as an international pariah. Their participation comes against a background of serious tension on the Korean peninsula. South Korea has accused the North of sinking one of its frigates in March and killing 46 sailors, and there are murmurs of escalating conflict in East Asia. One of the lesser consequences of the latest freeze in relations is that South Korea control the TV pictures from Africa and may prevent them being broadcast to the North.

Forty-four years ago it was very different as they charmed the crowds at Ayresome Park, beating Italy, and then in the quarter-final at Goodison Park they hurtled into a 3-0 lead against Portugal only to be denied by the robust brilliance of Eusebio. In one of the great individual performances in the tournament's history, the Mozambique-born forward scored four times as the Portuguese turned utter embarrassment into a 5-3 win and collected a place in the last four.

The support the Chollimas (a mythical winged horse from Korean legend) will muster in South Africa is likely to be limited to 1,000 Chinese fans dispatched by Beijing, which regards North Korea "as close as lips and teeth", to provide a measure of cheer for their ideological cousins. They will certainly struggle to win over neutrals with a playing style that concentrates utterly on not conceding goals. It is an approach best summed up by goalkeeper Ri Myong-Gu's description of his job as "defending the gateway to my motherland". He does it well, too, having kept clean sheets in 10 of the 16 games en route.

In qualification they scored nine goals in their first two games, home and away against Mongolia, and then managed only 11 more in their next 14 matches, against the likes of Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. They finished as runners-up to South Korea to reach South Africa, their success surprising many as they denied the regional heavyweights of Saudi Arabia and Iran – doughty goalless draws in both countries proving crucial.

"It was a great day," said their coach Kim of qualification. He will set his XI out in similar vein here. "While the global trend is attacking football, we stick to our largely defensive strategy with the 5-4-1 formation, mainly because this is the tactic which best suits our players," he said.

The squad all play in the domestic league, refashioned as the Super League last year, bar two; Jong Tae-se plies his trade in Japan, the country of his birth, while Hong Yong Jo plays on the wing for FC Rostov, strugglers in the Russian Premier League. The squat and powerful Jong, who scored four times on his debut against Mongolia, comes with the label "The People's Rooney", although he declared in a recent interview that he considers his style more akin to that of Didier Drogba. At 25 he is a year older than Rooney and his ambition is to play against (or with him) in the Premier League. A regular scorer for Kawasaki Frontale in the J League, Jong had an unsuccessful trial with an unnamed Premier League club this year.

Two goals last week in an impressive performance in a 2-2 draw in a warm-up match with Greece demonstrated Jong's raw talent, but his is often a thankless task as he ploughs a lonely furrow up front. He has in the past been joined by Kim Myong-won, but that will not be happening in the finals. Kim also plays in goal and was named as a keeper in the final 23-man party, the cunning plan being to sneak some more striking power into the squad. But Fifa responded by decreeing that if Kim has been listed as a goalkeeper then he can only play as a keeper. Sepp Blatter's name has no doubt gone straight into the "Dear Leader's" black book.

...and the other expected whipping boys

South Africa (FIFA ranking: 83)

The lowest-ranked host nation in history will have the pressure on them not to be the first hosts to go out at the group stage. Their domestic league is poor and with only five players competing for clubs in Europe, they lack big-game experience. Bafana Bafana's weaknesses were exposed in the Confederations Cup last year, where they failed to beat Iraq, and record goalscorer Benni McCarthy has been left out.

New Zealand (78)

The toughest challenge in qualifying was to overcome Bahrain, which they did by grinding out a 1-0 two-legged victory. The All Whites did not score against South Africa or Iraq in the Confederations Cup last summer, and their leading goalscorer Shane Smeltz had spells at Halifax and AFC Wimbledon. The squad is predominantly made up from their one professional club, Wellington Phoenix, and Fifa rank them below Panama and Uganda.

Honduras (38)

It took a 93rd-minute United States equaliser against Costa Rica in the final qualifying match to allow Honduras to sneak through on goal difference, and they have warmed up for the finals with draws against Azerbaijan and Belarus and defeats to Venezuela and Turkey. Fourteen of the squad play in their domestic league. Captain Amado Guevara, 34, and top scorer Carlos Pavon, 36, are in the twilight of their careers.

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