Let’s hear it for North Korea!

BY DAN-CHYI CHUA
Jun 13, 2010
*Special to asia!

If you haven't picked a team yet, think about going for the Asian underdog. It's been a helluva ride for them to get to South Africa.

 

Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Stadium. North Korea is ranked 105 by FIFA, and bookmakers give them a 2000-1 odds of winning the 2010 World Cup.

Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Stadium. North Korea is ranked 105 by FIFA, and bookmakers give them a 2000-1 odds of winning the 2010 World Cup.

Photo credit: adaptorplug


They amassed two dozen men – none of whom has been tested in the snazzy professional leagues of England, Italy or Germany – and got them into the tournament that is the pinnacle of footballing excellence.

Not bad for a country with nothing to eat.

Professional athletes need sustenance to support their active lifestyle, but food is not a commodity in abundance in North Korea. The country depends on foreign aid to feed its starving population. Its food shortages stand at about a million tonnes every year (which incidentally is how much food the United States discards every 11 days or so).

Days before the start of the World Cup, it received more than US$320,000 worth of powdered milk formula from South Korea.

Against the odds, this impoverished nation of 23 million is sending 23 strappy, scrappy lads to bring football glory home for the famished masses.

It's breathtaking!

National famine was just the first obstacle North Korea had to overcome in their journey to South Africa 2010. Arriving in Africa, they found themselves snubbed by Zimbabwe. As it turns out, pariah states – exclusive as their league may be – do not necessarily get along with one another.

Critics of North Korean have a myriad of reasons for their sentiment, from the ever-useful human rights abuses to the country's provocative military manœuvres that threaten to start a war on the Korean peninsula. The Zimbabweans, however, have a more personal bone to pick with North Korea. They haven’t forgiven the Communist nation for training the troops involved in the Matabeleland massacre in the 1980s that killed an estimated 20,000.

With the Zimbabwean door slammed in their face, the North Koreans had to look for an alternative base camp. Swaziland said no, rejecting the privilege of playing host to the North Koreans at a cost of just US$250,000.

Maybe they were trying to keep out the paparazzi.

 

The North Korean women's team beat Nigeria 1-0 in a friendly. The men's team is ranked 105 by FIFA, and bookmakers give them a 2000-1 odds of winning the 2010 World Cup.

The North Korean women's team beat Nigeria 1-0 in a friendly. The men's team is ranked 105 by FIFA, and bookmakers give them a 2000-1 odds of winning the 2010 World Cup.

Photo credit: John Pavelka


Finally setting up camp in South Africa, more woes followed.

North Korea might miss their star striker. Unlike Germany which lost Michael Ballack to something mundane like injury, the North Korean reason is more complicated.

When the team submitted their final list of players, their manager tried to sneak in striker Kim Myong-won as their required third goalkeeper. FIFA didn't fall for that and the football governing body ruled that Kim can only play as goalkeeper, and not part of the North Korean frontline.

North Korea can only hope serious injury befalls one of the other 22 on the team. Only then can Kim revert to “striker”. I wager that in the next couple of days, someone's going to get beaten up bad on the North Korea side.

The team that does play will have to put their best feet forward for their opening match against mighty giants Brazil. Drawn in this World Cup's Group of Death, they play Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast for the group's coveted two places in the next stage. These three other teams are all forces to be reckoned with, with big names like Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba to boot.

There are other problems. For one, no one knows if their jerseys are ready yet. According to the manufacturer Lazio, there were disagreements over the design.

It wasn't easy getting the jersey made. While companies like Nike were happy to ink a US$32-million-deal to outfit Team England, they weren't beating down Pyongyang's doors. Wayne Rooney jerseys may profitably fly off the shelves, thanks to fans both in and out of England, but not many are going to be donning the North Korean colours.

Apart, perhaps, from the 1,000-odd Chinese North Korea got to cheer them on.

North Koreans are not allowed to travel, so the North Korean Sports Ministry got Chinese actors, comedians and pop stars to attend their World Cup matches. After all, don’t Asians look the same anyway? Who's going to be able to tell a slitty-eyed, yellow-skinned Chinese celebrity from a slitty-eyed, yellow-skinned, wanting-to-defect-to-a-better-life North Korean?

The Communist state had few alternatives. Their brothers in the South have their own national team to back. They are probably still upset, anyway, over the North's torpedo attack on the South’s naval ship that killed 29 South Korean sailors in March.

After this tough journey for North Korea, hopefully they score an upset against Brazil, like they did in 1966, beating Italy 1-0. That's the stuff dreams are made of, the victory of the underdog.

Should the unlikely happen, their compatriots back home won’t be jumping for joy in front of their TV screens – the World Cup is not being telecast in North Korea.

dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for theasiamag.com, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

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