Football - A route to escape in North Korea

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North Korea has gained its tag as a “rogue state” due to its reluctance to open up to any foreign influences and instead decides to shroud itself in mystery.

Its borders are almost impenetrable and the terrible, suffocating lives which North Koreans live, under their leader Kim Jong-un, is hidden from the rest of the world due to the state banning the few visitors it has from taking any photos or footage inside the country.

Everything we know about North Korea is pieced together from orchestrated propaganda which they provide and the accounts from the few who have successfully defected from the country. There is, however, one sphere of life in the state of which we have quite a clear picture: football.

With accounts from westerners who have lived in the country and with the information provided by FIFA and the AFC we can see that North Koreans have an incredible passion for the game (perhaps fueled by propaganda from the state), have football matches available on television (including live German football since September), take part in playing for local teams and benefit from FIFA coaching programs for both male and female players.

Like many people, my interest in North Korean football began when they qualified for the World Cup in South Africa. They were a team who had arrived at a major international tournament for the first time since 1966 and had no players which were instantly recognizable to the viewers from all over the world.

The media began feeding fans stories about the players running away as soon as they landed in South Africa and that their star striker Jong Tae-Se cried during the national anthem against Brazil because he had been threatened with death if he didn’t perform (the reality being that the three “disappearing” players were just injured and unavailable and that Jong Tae-Se is just a particularly sensitive person, having cried on his debut for North Korea and when he scored his first goal).

During the tournament the North Korean games were shown live on the national channel KTC and match reports were in the Workers’ Newspaper the next morning, along with highlights from the other games in the tournament. Despite losing 2-1 to Brazil, 3-0 to Ivory Coast and 7-0 to Portugal the team were congratulated when they arrived back in Pyongyang by their families and national hero Pak Du Ik, scorer of the DPKR’s winning goal against Italy in 1966, said that the players had made their country proud.

Rumors that the team had been sent to work camps because of their failures were dismissed due to the fact that those that were based abroad returned to their clubs in perfect health and three quarters of the squad from the World Cup competed in the Asian Cup in 2011 in Qatar.

One of the theories behind why the government supports the national team rather than punish them is because of the money that they bring in when they qualify for tournaments; the World Cup provided the country with a much needed $8 million.

At home football plays an active part in everyday life and is many peoples only link with the outside world, mainly through the cooperation with FIFA and the wider footballing community.

North Korea has 500,000 players participating at 239 clubs with nearly 15,000 sportsmen officially registered with FIFA and employing the services of agents.

They have 10 international referees who manage games all over the world and a FIFA committee member who works with colleagues in every country on Earth.

Like all FIFA members North Korea benefits from the GOAL program and it seems that they have taken full advantage of everything it offers. They have had a youth training centre built in the capital, constructed a headquarters, improved the national stadium with an artificial pitch and bought two natural pitches, all at the cost of nearly $2.5 million.

Since 2008 the national FA has received grants $1.55 million which it has invested in youth, men and women’s football as well as refereeing and infrastructure, and they’ve signed up to coaching courses for refereeing, coaching and futsal.

All of this has resulted in this isolated country producing a talented national team who are one of only 76 teams to even feature in a World Cup and who dominate tournaments in Asia.

Compare this to Trinidad and Tobago who are one place above North Korea in the world rankings and their system and policy of fund distribution looks a lot more forward thinking and responsible.

Trinidad and Tobago puts three times as much funding into the vaguely named “admin” as it does women’s football (which is unsurprising when you realise than until recently Jack Warner was running the FA) and doesn’t have anywhere near the same number of local clubs or officials.

Local football in the country consists of the Highest Class Football League and the Technical Innovations Contests, both created in 2010. Unfortunately foreigners are banned from watching local football during their visits and no teams from DPRK participate in the Asian Champions League due to their ban on foreign players, so the only glimpse of their fans come from their international games (which FIFA rules dictate that all foreigners must be allowed to attend).

All matches are packed out due to soldiers, workers and students being given time off to attend free of charge to support the squad, creating an incredible atmosphere.

In 2005 during a World Cup qualifier in Pyongyang against Iran in which they lost 2-0, violence erupted on the streets around the stadium when they refused to let the Iranians leave. In a rare show of defiance, the supporters disobeyed armed police and officials who tried to stop the violence and continued to attack the Iranian team bus.

There are many faults in the way which FIFA operates its GOAL program, especially the way in which they offer no assistance to non-FIFA countries to become affiliated, but they have to be credited on the way in which they have managed to implement a proper development system in North Korea which offers the escapism to fans which they, more than any other people on Earth, need.

image: © johnpavelka

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