FOX Soccer Exclusive
32 Teams in 32 Days: North Korea
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Country: North Korea (Democratic People's Republic of Korea)
Nickname: "Chollima” (roughly: “Pegasus”)
Important note: Though the team is usually referred to as North Korea, FIFA designates them as Korea DPR
NORTH KOREANorth Korea Team Page
World Cup schedule
June 15: vs. Brazil (Johannesburg)
June 21: vs. Portugal (Cape Town)
June 25: vs. Ivory Coast (Nelspruit)
Hong Yong-Jo, Forward
Jong Tae-Se, Forward
Best WC result: 1966 Quarterfinals
FIFA World Rank: 105
Led by Kim Jong-Il under what is widely described as a cult of personality, North Korea is almost hermetically sealed from the outside world. What little information we have on the nation comes from smuggled cell phone transmissions into South Korea (an offense punishable by death) and satellite flyovers that reveal how starkly undeveloped the nation is. Sadly, North Korea is about as close as you get to an old-style Soviet state; according to defectors who have managed to flee the country, it makes places like Turkmenistan look good.
As you might expect, sports are used here for propaganda purposes. In a twist, however, many of the sports remains internal and North Korea routinely declines to participate in international events. The fact that they are even in the World Cup is something of a shock: since 1966, the nation has either withdrawn from the tournament, failed to qualify or flat-out refused to enter.
By and large, North Korea also refuses to allow its athletes to play overseas and to abide by normal FIFA transfer rules. While that is slowly changing -- at the moment a total of 23 of them have played abroad, including two in Europe -- it has been suggested that this shift is a tactical move by the Kim government to keep players happy by granting them the ability to live in relative opulence.
But North Korea's iron control over its image and people has started to slip. Cell phones and the internet have opened up fissures. As for soccer, while few people paid attention to North Korea's World Cup qualifying matches, they are known as a defense-first side that fouls early and often. They do not shoot the ball well and tend to overpass, but they are extremely fit and will play out the full 90 minutes.
PAST WORLD CUP SUCCESS: None. Perhaps, like England, they are clutching on to 1966, where they surprisingly reached the quarterfinals in their lone World Cup appearance to date. In that match, they made the wrong kind of history, jumping out to a 3-0 lead before ultimately losing to Portugal 5-3 in one of the greatest comebacks in World Cup history. That comeback cemented the reputation of the now legendary Eusebio, who scored four goals in the match. The North Koreans did however knock Italy out early in the tournament, and that's something the Azzurri have never forgotten.
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PHOTOS AND VIDEO
LEAGUE OVERVIEW: Little is known about the Hermit Kingdom's league. It apparently has one, but because of the country’s paranoia, its teams do not take part in Asian competitions. It is said to have 15 teams, but the most recent league champions -- Pyongyang City Sports Group -- were crowned in 2007.
MANAGER: Kim Jong-Hun. Very little is known about him. In one of the few interviews conducted with him, Kim gave all credit for his team’s performance to "the Great Leader's care" for his players.
KEY PLAYERS: Your guess is as good as ours. They have very, very few players outside the county, and as little is known about their league, it’s nearly impossible to judge them fairly or accurately. And even if you name 'em, you can never be quite sure what you're getting: North Korea has been known to change lineup numbers and squad shirts prior to taking the field in what most would find to be evidence of truly baffling paranoia.
Here's what we do know: A small handful of players have been allowed to ply their trade outside the nation. Of those, Hong Yong-Jo (FC Rostov, Russia) is one of the two to play in Europe. He captains the national team, and has scored 11 goals for the squad to date. His performance in Russia has been poor; he's only scored three times in his tenure there. The other European-based player is Kim Kuk-Jin (FC Wil, Switzerland), a very young midfielder with only two caps (and two goals) to his name. 26-year old Jong Tae-Sae has enjoyed a long tenure in Japan with Kawasaki Frontale; he has been a solid scorer for the side.
FIRST ROUND OPPONENTS: They're the cannon fodder of Group G, facing off against Brazil, the Ivory Coast and Portugal.
HEAD-TO-HEAD AGAINST FIRST ROUND OPPONENTS: Brazil and the Ivory Coast have never played North Korea. Portugal has met them once, as detailed above.
HOW THEY QUALIFIED: North Korea had to start right from the first round, making them the only Asian qualifier to progress to the World Cup without getting a bye. North Korea would snag the final slot with 12 points, just behind hated rivals South Korea, finishing with a 3-3-2 record. They edged Saudi Arabia by securing a 0-0 draw in Riyadh on the final day of qualification, advancing thanks to superior goal difference. Along the way, North Korea claimed their team had been poisoned (after a 1-0 loss in Seoul; how else could it be explained?) and essentially refused to allow the South Korean team to play in Pyongyang -- FIFA intervened and that match, a 0-0 draw, was held in Shanghai.
PERCENTAGE CHANCE TO PROGRESS: 0%. They're likely to finish dead last.
TO WATCH: Given the Korean's history of combustion, I'd watch the press conferences to see what excuses the coach comes up with for the Dear Leader, because this team is unlikely to do much on the pitch.
TOMORROW'S TEAM: New Zealand