Playing for Keeps – The North Koreans at the World Cup

After a disappointing showing, The Thousand Mile Horse became the glue that holds North Korean society together.

A personal highlight of watching the World Cup of Soccer last summer was the opportunity to see North Korea interacting with the West. For the first time since 1966, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea qualified for the biggest tournament in sports and their athletic prowess was on display to the world. Some viewed it as a chance for the reclusive Stalinist nation to bond with the outside world over good old fashioned competition and sportsmanship. Others saw the inevitability of it’s crack-pot leadership to have their feelings hurt by far superior footballing nations in front of billions of people. While it started off well, the inevitable came to pass, and if there’s one thing we know about North Korea, they don’t like having their feelings hurt.

The Party leadership were obviously not optimistic about their chances at the tournament. Although World Cup qualification was heralded as heir-apparent, “young General Kim Jong-un’s accomplishment,” the games were not scheduled to be broadcast in North Korea, unless the team won. Facing five-time champions, Brazil, and superstar-laden Portugal in their first two matches, it was not looking fruitful that the People would be enjoying an afternoon of footy on State television. But even Kim Jong-il and his moon faced, Swiss educated clone must have been impressed by the passion on display in game 1.

After Japanese import, striker Jong Tae-Se, “The People’s Rooney” blubbered his way through the national anthem, the team played the Brazilians close, much to the delight of 1,000 red-clad, banner waving fans cheering them on from the stands at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg. Although the fans were made up of Chinese actors and musicians hired by North Korea, as well as Chinese tourists on a football, safari, and casino vacation package, they were treated to an impressive display. The game ended in a 2-1 defeat, but considering the magnitude of the foe, it was a sort of moral victory. So much so, in fact, that the Dear Leader decided to do something completely unprecedented. The game against Portugal would be broadcast LIVE to the People, well, at least those who could afford a TV, or who weren’t chained up in labour camps (more on that later).

China's greatest actors pretending to care.

The “Thousand Mile Horse” must have been feeling a tad skittish when their “traitor”-made Hyundai bus arrived at the stadium for their second match, as they were dismantled like a peninsular peace treaty at the hands of the Portuguese. The 7-0 shellacking was one of the worst in World Cup history, and was seen as an absolute slap in the face of the two Kim Jongs. Although the embarrassment was broadcast in full, the North Korean commentator stopped talking halfway through. Viewers would have been tempted to change the channel, but as we’ve all complained at one time or another, there was nothing else on. It is likely that after the game, Jong-il retired to his home theatre, scanned his collection of 20,000 VHS tapes, popped Shrek into the VCR, and watched for inspiration as Lord Farquaad makes the Ginger Bread Man pay for his insubordination. That or something starring Elizabeth Taylor to calm his jangled nerves.

The Dear Leader bet it all against Portugal and lost dearly.

Our story picks up upon the team’s return to the “Glorious Fatherland.” While the Spanish champions were greeted in Madrid with a raucous victory parade, and runners-up, the Netherlands returned to Amsterdam with a job well-done parade on the canals, the North Koreans were treated to a six hour public dressing-down in front of 400 young athletes and university students. The team was called up on stage at the Working People’s Culture Palace and shamed by top officials and sports experts for failing in the “ideological struggle,” and for “betraying the Young General.” After the country’s top sports commentator criticized each player individually and pointed out each mistake they had made during the tournament, the players were required to speak out against their coach, placing the blame for the country’s lack of football power squarely on the former national team player’s shoulders.

There is a saying about coaching in professional sports; “coaches are hired to be fired.” The unfortunate Kim Jung Hun has more to worry about than finding a new job on a new team. Rumour has it that he has been expelled from the Worker’s Party and sent to work hard labour at a construction project in Pyongyang. With the Dear Leader’s penchant for executing officials who “fail,” there is even speculation that Jung Hun’s firing has been or will be carried out by a squad. A squad for firing. In North Korea, you might say that coaches are hired to be fired upon.

Whether the coach’s footballing career ended with a blindfold and a cigarette or with an extended stay in labour camp, one thing is for certain. Watching North Korean football is more comical than watching Harlem Globetrotters basketball, and more tragic than watching an Argentinean rugby team get on a plane.

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