Nestled in mystery and clouded in uncertainty, North Korea has no choice but to come out of its isolation and onto the global stage at Ellis Park for the 2010 World Cup.
This is just the second time the DPRK will feature in football’s biggest event, the first being 1966 where they wowed the world by making it to the quarter finals – and knocked out heavyweights Italy in the process.
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“Nobody talks about them but they play good football,” said Ivory Coast manager Sven-Goran Eriksson.
Eriksson’s side will face the hermetic side in group G later in the group phase of the competition. The Ivory Coast ‘Elephants’ will not be alone in not knowing quite what to expect from the side that plays most of its football in a league mostly unknown to the rest of the world.
Meet North Korea’s Wayne Rooney
Jong Tae-se is billed as ‘North Korea’s Wayne Rooney’. The Kawasaki Frontal striker was born in Japan, where he has lived his entire life and plays professional football.
Tae-se was born to South Korean parentage, but with footage of the striker crying during the North Korean national anthem before matches it is obvious that his heart lies elsewhere.
Jong Tae-se has promised fans a goal a game, and with 15 goals from 22 caps his confidence may not be misplaced.
Despite the confidence his side will play in the toughest of the World Cup groups including African powerhouse Ivory Coast, a Cristiano Ronaldo inspired Portugal and of course their first opponent, Brazil.
Eligible to play for the DPRK after handing back his South Korean citizenship and handed his new passport at the North Korean consulate in Tokyo, the curious case of North Korea goes deeper than just who decides to line up for them.
South Korean fans in Pyongyang
South Korea’s defeat of Greece was met with joy by North Koreans, who could only watch matches on a delay after their country failed to secure broadcast rights.
Fans reportedly cheered the victory, despite threatening a military strike on the neighbouring territory only a few days ago.
Chosun Sinbo, a Japanese based newspaper renowned for following the North Korean Government reported:
“Who would like to see a nation with the same bloodline lose?”
“What we detest is not the South Korean people, but their conservative government,” the paper quoted another source as saying.
In press conferences, however, North Korean manager Kim Jong Hun has been a little more cagey. A moment of miscommunication occurred when a reporter wanted to know if Kim had seen South Korea’s 2-0 win over Greece on Saturday. The response was all too familiar.
“I don’t understand,” said Kim.
The question was repeated, promting Kim to consult his assistant.
“The first objective is for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to get through the first round. The second objective is to go as far as possible in the tournament,” he replied.
Despite the curiosity surrounding the nation itself and its ‘Dear leader’ approach, there can be little question over the way they qualified.
The journey began back in 2007, with their Asian qualifying campaign against Mongolia. After making it through to the third round, the team faced its greatest challenge.
Matches with South Korea became an obstacle after attempts to stop the side from playing the South Korean anthem or flying its flag at the venue where the match was played in China. The match ended 0-0, and return leg in Shanghai 1-1.
Never pretty and playing in front of a wall of defenders, the likes of Jong Tae-se face off against a Brazilian side with less flair, but more mettle than previous Cup appearances.
The question remains over how will the result be shown back home.
With a rampant Brazil ready to pounce on a side that has not been at the World Cup for four decades, it could be brutal for the relative minnow.
But after the road they have travelled and all this attention, the pluck of North Korea’s players cannot be questioned.