June 25, 2010 13:28
North Korea is now said to be in shock from the 7-0 rout of its national football team by Portugal in the World Cup. It is not easy for North Koreans, who have lived in a bubble of propaganda throughout their lives, to accept the reality of the live TV broadcast of the match on Monday. That the North Korean announcer and commentator were speechless when the score surpassed 4-0 indicates how shocking the defeat was.
It was only to be expected that the extremely defense-centered North Korean football team would sustain a devastating defeat once that strategy was overturned. The North Korean leadership appears to have unaware of that danger when it decided to have the match broadcast live. Kim Jong-il's passion for football may also have something to do with the rash decision.
North Korea miraculously advanced to the quarterfinals in the 1966 World Cup. All the players were declared heroes, and the people began to love football. But the sport collapsed in January 1967 when Kim Il-sung purged the Hamgyong provincial faction. When two central party committee secretaries, Pak Kum-chol and Kim To-man, who were in charge of the regime's football organization, were purged, footballers fell victim as well. All the 1966 World Cup heroes were the offspring of landowners or businessmen. Sin Yong-gyu, the team captain named by FIFA as one of the best 11 of the world, was the son of a big landowner. The team was dissolved and captain Sin was banished to a ceramic plant in North Hamgyong Province, never to return to football. Most players except Pak Tu-ik were sent to concentration camps or the countryside.
"That was the end of football," said Yun Myong-chan, a former manager of the North Korean team who defected to the South in 1999.
It was Kim Jong-il who decided to revive the national football team. He inaugurated the so-called April 25 team by recalling the World Cup heroes. His passion for soccer was such that he remembered the names of all the players and was seriously aggrieved when repeated attempts to reach the World Cup were thwarted. He promised the players a Mercedes and a US$10,000 reward if they managed to advance to the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. Jang Song-taek, now the No. 2-man in the North, reportedly prepared the purse. When the team was eliminated in a 3-0 rout by South Korea in a preliminary in Qatar, Kim instructed the team not to take part in overseas games for a decade but build up strength at home. As a consequence, North Korea did not participate in matches abroad for six years.
Jang is also said to be a football fan, and spent a lot of time with the national football team during his years in the wilderness. At Jang's insistence, Kim took the extraordinary step of inviting players from the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan or Chongryon. The skill of the North Korean football team improved substantially and put up an unexpectedly good fight against top-ranking Brazil. But Portugal taught the North a lesson on what the reality is in world football.
The North's advance to this year's World Cup and its brave performance against Brazil have reminded the North Korean leadership and the people of the good old days. But defeat by Portugal has replaced that elation with shame and despair again. If this moves Kim Jong-il to rage, nobody can tell what will happen. The team that was routed by South Korea were sent from the airport straight to the coal mines. One Portuguese player has expressed a fear that the North Korean players might be punished back home. That's not a groundless apprehension. As a defector from the North myself, I pray that the North Korean players put up a good fight in their final match on Friday night.
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