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Page last updated at 16:13 GMT, Wednesday, 9 June 2010 17:13 UK

North Korea - the World Cup's mystery men

World Cup guide: North Korea

World Cup guide - North Korea

By Mike Henson

A small piece of football history will be made in Johannesburg on Tuesday when Brazil play North Korea for the first time, perhaps the most incongruous pairing thrown up by the World Cup draw.

Brazil are five-time winners and the world's top-ranked side; most of their players are superstars on a global level.

The majority of North Korea's squad are unknowns, insulated from the intense glare of the world's biggest tournament in their secretive homeland. At 105th, they are also the lowest-ranked team at the competition.

The images projected by the two nations are similarly far apart.

Brazil is synonymous with an unfettered joy of expression, illustrated perhaps most vividly down the years by its football team.

Think of North Korea, however, and thoughts instinctively turn to a political regime, whose military spending and belligerent foreign policy earned them a place alongside Iraq and Iran in former United States president George W Bush's 'Axis of Evil'.

Their domestic media were described as "so suppressed they are non-existent" by campaign group Reporters Without Borders and the few interviews that have appeared from inside the squad have been full of cliches.

"Perhaps there is no other team in the world who would be fighting with the same dedication to please the leader and to bring fame to their motherland," said coach Kim Jong-Hun.

Kim Jong-Hun
Kim Jong-Hun's side qualified with a 0-0 draw away to Saudi Arabia

North Korea's domestic game is predictably impenetrable.

Clubs do not participate in Asian continental competitions, partly due to their failure to abide by international transfer rules, but unfortunately for Kim, Fifa were sufficiently clued up about the country to spot his attempt to fill one of the three mandatory goalkeeper places in his 23-man squad with an extra striker, Kim Myong-Won.

BBC World Service's Richard Fleming, who followed the national team on a tour of France in 2009, says North Korea's players are "very dismissive of the west, and the western media".

He added: "I knew that, they knew that and they knew that I knew that. There was very much a coldness and mistrust, but also maybe a fear on their part."

Michael Church, Asia correspondent for World Soccer magazine, tried to track down the team at last December's East Asian Games in Hong Kong, yielding similar results.

"While the rest of the teams were staying in downtown Hong Kong where all the tourists stay, they were set in an outdoor recreation centre as far away from prying eyes as possible," he added.

"It was surrounded by hedges and fences and locked gates and set away from the road. They were completely isolated, which is exactly the way they wanted it."

606: DEBATE

Headlines about North Korea in the build-up to the tournament have hardly been positive.

The decision to accept an invitation to base themselves in Zimbabwe - the only one of the 32 teams to do so - led to anger among the local population because North Korea has been involved in training government troops.

Meanwhile, there have been reports that some of North Korea's ticket allocation has been handed to China and that those left at home could be unable to watch the finals if the South Korean TV coverage they depend on falls victim to escalating tensions between the two nations.

Through it all, however, North Korea have the eternal appeal of the underdog.

And that appeal is intensified by their performance in their only previous World Cup appearance 44 years ago.

Eusebio

Eusebio scores four in Portugal fightback

In 1966, when the World Cup was played in England, they progressed from their group with a shock 1-0 win over much-fancied Italy and stormed into a 3-0 lead against Portugal in the quarter-finals, only to be finally beaten 5-3.

"They had this very fast game, they called it Chollima football," said Nick Bonner, an executive producer on the documentary Game of Their Lives which tracked down the 1966 squad.

"Chollima was a mythical Pegasus-like horse which carried an intellectual and a worker over impressive distances and it was how the players played their football. They were particularly fit and the matches were relatively slowly paced.

"Along came these Koreans, who one of commentators of the time described as like clockwork mice who were wound up and whizzed on until they had no energy."

The national side have not come close to reproducing that performance since, although the nation's women's team are currently ranked fifth in the world and the under-19s were crowned Asian champions in 2006, but Bonner insists: "The passion for the game is absolute."

The current side is built on a strong defence, which conceded just five goals in 14 games as they emerged from qualifying ahead of the likes of Saudi Arabia and Iran.

"The one thing they can certainly do at Asian level is defend. They are very well organised," said Church.

In attack, North Korea will look to skipper Hong Yong-Jo, who was their top scorer in qualifying, breaking from midfield to net four of their 11 goals. Meanwhile, Jong Tae-Se, a physical frontman with seven goals in 13 games for Japanese side Kawasaki Frontale this season, will be tasked with holding the ball up while his deep-lying colleagues supplement the attack.

Pak Do-Ik - scorer of the winner against Italy in 1966 - has urged the current team to deliver "payback" to Portugal, who they meet in their second group game in South Africa.

North Korea 1966 squad in Middlesbrough in 2002
North Korea players take in the Riverside atmosphere in 2002

Such a result is unlikely. Instead, North Korea have more chance of repeating the 1966 team's victories over hearts and minds.

North Korea played all three of their group games at Middlesbrough's Ayresome Park ground and when they travelled to Liverpool to take on Portugal, thousands of Teessiders followed.

In 2002, Pak and the other six surviving members of the squad returned to parade around Middlesbrough's new Riverside home ahead of a match against Leeds while Boro's ladies team are planning to tour North Korea in the autumn.

"They came up to Middlesbrough and because of their attitude were embraced by the local population," said Bonner.

"If they can achieve that in Africa that will really be something. They will love that because they really play well to a crowd."



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see also
Thursday's World Cup 2010 round-up
03 Jun 10 |  World Cup 2010
North Korea select J-league stars
13 May 10 |  World Cup 2010
Team guide: North Korea
31 May 10 |  World Cup 2010
N Korea fans face Cup TV blackout
11 May 10 |  Asia-Pacific
World Cup venues
05 Dec 09 |  World Cup 2010
North Korea revive World Cup memories
18 Jun 09 |  Asia-Pacific
North Koreans relive spirit of 1966
23 Oct 02 |  England
Flashback: Korea's 1966 stunner
19 Jun 02 |  Other News
N Korean footballers back in spotlight
09 Feb 02 |  Asia-Pacific
North Korea's secretive footballers
07 Feb 02 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Kim Jong-il
16 Jan 09 |  Asia-Pacific


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