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The curious case of North Korea's national football team

The North Korea men's national football team has been affected by issues in the country and also by strict rules enforced on them. Since impressing on the world stage in 1966, the North Koreans haven't really set the world alight and have a complete lack of grassroots level football.

While you might be reading this article in 2015, some individual residing in North Korea is living in the year 104; which is in accordance with the Juche calendar. This rather unique calendar, which was introduced in 1997, is based on the birth year of North Korea’s founder Kim II-sung (1912) and refuses to consider any world event before that.

It’s almost as if time stands still in the country.

However, time isn’t the only thing oppressed in North Korea, with the country’s long list of restrictions extending to many areas including radio and television censorship, journalism, the internet and even haircuts, with citizens having to abide by the 28 approved haircuts or face a punishment.

Needless to say, football, which is usually considered as the game of the masses, has suffered in the country too. Thus presenting - the curious case of the North Korea national football team.

Almost ‘army-like’

North Korea possess a very passionate away support, unlike their home crowds
North Korea possess a very passionate away support, which is a total contrast from their home crowd

The North Korean football team falls under the governance of the DPR Korea Football Association, which was established in 1945 and is vastly comprised of officials from the Workers Party of Korea as well as officials from the military.

The organisation is as secretive as the country itself, which can be noted by the fact that the KFA's president Ri Yong-Mu, who also served as the country’s sports minister, is currently a lieutenant general in the Korean People’s Army.

The team itself observes almost army-like discipline, which was noticed by many during the latest edition of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, where the players emerged from the tunnel in pin-drop silence and even trained without uttering a single peep. There were only a few instances of conversation between the coach and his players, summing up a silence that is certainly unnerving and not expected from a routine training session, which is traditionally loud and unwinding in nature.

Interviews are something that the North Korean national team is prohibited from giving as well. The only mouthpiece between them and the outside world is their media manager, who is expected to declare the aspirations of the team without leaking too many details about its ongoings.

Matches in the country are also played in pin drop silence, with a BBC report in 2013 describing the 50,000 strong crowd as reactionless during one of the home matches. Such oppression is shocking, to say the least, and not only contains the feeling of the squad but also their fans, many of whom are undoubtedly eager to show their feelings without raising eyebrows from their federal overlords.

The problem of sanctions

Sanctions are another issue that has rocked football in North Korea, with FIFA withdrawing the $1.66 million funding it promised to the North Korean FA due to the country’s unjustifiable nuclear expansion.

In fact, one could say that the funds for North Korean football, which is considered as developmental expenditure, was blocked due to nuclear expansion – a non-developmental expenditure.

Such sanctions can only spell bad news for some much-needed football development at the grassroots level in the country, which is still substandard.

South Korea, on the other hand, has marched much ahead of their neighbours when it comes to football development and boasts of tie-ups with Standard Chartered among various other illustrious organizations. If North Korea is to ever catch up, then the first step forward would be to indulge in behaviour that wouldn’t invite sanctions.

The glory days of North Korean football

North Korea defeated a heavily favoured Italy team in the 1966 World Cup in England
North Korea defeated a heavily favoured Italy team 1-0 in the 1966 World Cup

However, the North Korean national team wasn’t always the hypothetical black sheep of the football world.

The country experienced its finest hour in the sport when it brought about the defeat of a mighty Italian team in the memorable 1966 World Cup in England. They earned a spot in the quarter-finals and faced Portugal in a thrilling 8 goal match which they eventually lost thanks to a four-goal blitzkrieg from Eusebio, although they would return home as heroes.

The 1976 Olympics was another memorable event for North Korea, who finished second in their group before being knocked out by Poland in the quarter-finals. The country has also tasted some success in their own backyard, with the national team being crowned AFC Challenge Cup champions on two consecutive occasions, in 2010 and 2012 respectively, but they did not enter the 2014 edition of the tournament.

Recent tournament history

It took North Korea 44 years to participate in their next World Cup, after their historic run in 1966. The 2010 tournament was a real let down for the country who, despite performing well against Brazil in a 2-1 defeat, suffered a humiliating 7-0 defeat against Portugal and were eventually knocked out by the Ivory Coast, finishing 32nd in the overall tournament.

Their Asian Cup history has been a complete mixed bag as well, with the country finishing 4th in their first every Asian Cup back in 1980 and 8th in the next tournament they participated in, back in 1992.

North Korea’s wait for their next AFC tournament bow would extend to 19 years after the country refused to enter the 1996 tournament. They failed to qualify in 2000 and 2004 as well as being banned from the 2007 tournament after being found guilty of improper conduct.

North Korea finished in 13th place in the 2015 AFC Asia Cup
North Korea finished in 13th place in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup

The 2011 and 2015 AFC Asian Cup tournaments were North Korea’s most disappointing, with the country finishing in 12th and 13th place respectively.

The road ahead

There’s still much to be desired for the North Korea team, who certainly have the potential to become one of Asia’s footballing giants, but success can only be achieved if one concentrates on developing the game in the country at grassroots level.

However, every dark cloud has a silver lining and there has been a strong glimmer of hope for the North Korean team, who finished in a promising third place in the 2015 East Asian Cup and have given more than modest performances in their 2018 World Cup qualifiers, where they pulled off promising victories against Yemen and Uzbekistan and currently top Group H*.

Building on these promising performances by nurturing talented young footballers is something that would do the country a whole lot of good. Maybe this time they should take a tip from their neighbours and do just that.

*updated as of October 30, 2015

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