Saturday, July 24, 2010

Ask a Korean! News: North Korean Soccer (Part II)

[See Part I here.]

This is Part II of the translation of Mr. Joo Seong-Ha's account of North Korean soccer history and analysis.


The national soccer team was swept into the purge as well, because the team received unconditional support from Park Geum-Cheol, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Organization of the Central Committee of the Communist Party who was then the number-two man of North Korea and leader of the Gapsan Line; and from Kim Do-Man, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Propaganda. Park Geum-Cheol and Kim Do-Man did utilize soccer to advertise their achievements.

As the political atmosphere changed, the players had to undergo endless sessions of Ideology Struggle Meetings and Self-Criticisms. Shin Yeong-Gyu had a particular problem of being a son of a landowner. Eventually, the entire national team was purged and scattered in rural areas. The purge of that time was notorious in its breadth; by the middle of 1968, two-thirds of officer seats in rural areas were empty.

At the time, there were rumors in North Korea that the national team was purged because they fell for the "courtesan tactics" of the imperialists. In short, the team allowed five goals in the Portugal game because they slept with the foreign women who infiltrated the hotel the night before the game. Although the rumor was never proven to be either true or false, it is difficult to believe that Team North Korea, with their pride as the Chollima, would mentally slack off before such an important game.

Documentary "The Chollima Soccer Team," 
based on North Korean games in the 1966 World Cup

Most purged players were placed in a factory in Hamgyeongbuk-do Gyeongseong-gun. Even as laborers, their passion for soccer did not cool. Apparently, it was easy to spot former national team members who would kick around the ball on the way to and from the factory. Jewel is still a jewel, even in the rough; a few years later, the soccer teams for schools which the children of the players attended began winning national championships. It is not clear how much this factored in, but the teams from Hamgyeongbuk-do, where the majority of the quarterfinals team was exiled, is still the best among all provincial teams.

After a decade of "revolutionization period," the North Korean regime returned a few players. Because they were well over the age to play, most of them became coaches. But some were buried forever. The biggest example is Shin Yeong-Gyu, whom the president of FIFA extolled as a world-class player. The North Korean regime announced that Shin died in 1996, but there is no knowledge of his whereabouts since the England World Cup.

According to reports, Park Seung-Jin (who holds the record as the first Asian player to ever score in the World Cup finals) was in the Yodeok political prisoner camp in the 1980s. His nickname in the prison camp was "cockroach" because Park reportedly said that cockroach was the most delicious among all the insects he had eaten.

In 2002, English documentary director Daniel Gordon visited North Korea to film a documentary called "Chollima Soccer Team" [TK: English title is "The Game of Their Lives"] that chronicled the story of North Korean team in the England World Cup and thereafter. Although it had only been 36 years since the World Cup, there were only seven survivors from the team: Park Du-Ik, Park Seung-Jin, Lim Jung-Seon, Lim Seung-Hui, Yang Seong-Guk and Han Bong-Jin.

The surviving players from the England World Cup in front of Kim Il-Sung's statute. 
From left, Park Seung-Jin, Lim Jung-Seon, Park Du-Ik, Lim Seung-Hui, Yang Seong-Guk, 
Lee Chang-Myeong, coach Myeong Rye-Hyeon, Han Bong-Jin.

Park Seung-Jin is apparently pardoned from the prison camp. They were working as soccer team coaches. Director Gordon said "North Korean players were surprised that Westerners would make a documentary out of their story," pleased that they were not forgotten. The former players visited Middlesbrough that year thanks to the documentary.

After the national team was purged, there were whispers in North Korea that North Korean soccer would not rise for another thirty years because the generation was cut off. Indeed, North Korean soccer paid a steep price for making sports as a political pawn.

During the 1960s, South Korea deliberately avoided playing North Korea, which was then the top team in Asia. In fact, South Korea forfeited the entry into the 1966 England World Cup preliminaries because it wanted to avoid playing North Korea. In January 1967, inspired by North Korea's quarterfinals run, Kim Hyeong-Wook, (former director of Korean Central Intelligence Agency) founded a Yangji Team made up of contemporary South Korean stars such as Kim Ho, Kim Jeong-Nam, Lee Hoe-Taek. But the North-South match never came to pass, and the team was disbanded three years later.

The first time when North and South Korea played each other in an international soccer match was in 1976, at the semifinals of Bangkok Youth Asian Games. South Korea lost 1-0. The first game between the national teams was in December 1978, in the final of Bangkok Asian Games. The two teams tied 0-0 after overtime, and shared the gold medal.

North Korean soccer went into a significant decline since the 1980s. South Korea defeated North Korea in all of the contests since the 1980s, such as the semifinals of the Asian Cup in Kuwait in September 1980 (2-1); Italy World Cup preliminaries in Singapore in 1989 (1-0); and the Dynasty Cup in Beijing, China in 1990 (1-0).

A notable event in North Korean soccer of the 1980s was the establishment of the women's team. When women's soccer became an official sport of the 1986 Asian Games, North Korea established the women's national team in May 1986 and strategically invested in the team. At first, the team was selected from the women's track and field team.

North Korean women's team raises the trophy.

This was an about-face from the official attitude, expressed in the official publications mere three to four years before the establishment of the team, sneering, "The rotten and diseased world of capitalism does not spare women from kicking a ball. Not only women's soccer, but also other former objects of criticisms such as women's judo and women's weightlifting now act as medal-winners for North Korea sports.

North Korea, having lost a series of games against South Korea in men's soccer, finally achieved a reversal in women's soccer. The first match ever between North and South Korean women's soccer team occurred in 1990 Beijing Asian Games. North Korea dominated the game, winning 7-0. Lee Hong-Sil, who scored the first goal, won the honor of becoming a Labor Party member on the spot. Awarding Labor Party membership on the spot is only permitted for a special achievement. Lee later became a referee for international women's soccer.

Unlike women's soccer, men's soccer of North Korea only faced an increasing gap with the rest of the world. In the early 1990s, North Korean finally came to adopt groundbreaking measures. First, it established the Pyongyang Cup International Football Games in 1990, which was the first international soccer game hosted by North Korea. This game only happened three times until 1992, perhaps because of the incredibly cheap award of $20,000 for the winning team, $10,000 for the second place and $5,000 for the third place. Also, there were few countries that participated, and North Korean team did not do very well at any rate.

Another measure was to introduce a foreign coach. Pal Csernai, a Hungarian coach who had significance experience in the German league, was invited to coach the North Korean team. While Csernai once was the coach of Bayern Munich FC for five years between 1978 through 1983 -- the golden age of the Bundesliga -- and won the league twice, at the time in 1990 he was relegated to being a coach for a Hungarian pro team.

Csernai served as North Korean team's advisor from June 1991 to October 1993. The coach of the team was a North Korean. The initial results were positive; within four months, North Korea would beat the United States 2-1 in a friendly. But overall, Csernai's North Korean venture was not very successful. Regardless of the ability of the coach, there was not much room to operate in North Korea. In October 1993, North Korean team left for Qatar to play the preliminaries for the 1994 United States World Cup. In the preliminaries, North Korea lost every game but one. In particular, it was dominated by South Korea in a 3-0 loss, gifting "The Miracle of Doha" for South Korean team.

Csernai returned directly to Hungary from Qatar. The head of the national team organization, only known as "Kim" of the Athletics Committee, was demoted to being a laborer in a train station in Pyongyang. Yoon Myeong-Chan, coach of the national team, was not free from blame either; Yoon eventually defected to South Korean in 1999. After the people who advocated for a foreign advisor were quieted, North Korean soccer went to a dozen years of remission.

North Korean sports went through a difficult period as the economic crisis worsened in 1995. The soccer team would not receive balls or cleats. But the soccer team had it better than other teams. In 2004, the family of Moon Gi-Nam, former coach of the North Korean national soccer team, defected to Korea. Moon Gyeong-Min, son of the coach Moon, testified that North Korean soccer players nonetheless were able to eat meat. The younger Moon also played for the national team in the 1990s, while playing for the Locomotives in North Korea. He testified that North Korea imported beef from Germany when hundreds of thousands of cattle were slaughtered due to a mad cow disease outbreak, and the beef was first provided to the soccer players.

Even amidst the economic difficulties, soccer leagues in North Korea maintained its lifeline. North Korea has a league system. While the teams do not home and away games because they lack the means to travel quickly, they hold games three times a year, each round held in a single region. Mangyeongdae Cup, which begins in February, gives its winner in April. There is a Technological Revolution Games in July, held in a tournament format; and there is the Republic Cup in September, held in a round-robin format.

The three winning teams of the three games play one more time to anoint the champion in November; if the same team wins multiple games, the runner-up plays. The final champion wins the Football Association President's Cup and the chance to enter the King's Cup held in Thailand. The last-place team is demoted to the second league. The first league is called "Best Team Games" or "Myeongsu Level League". Usually the first league has 12 teams. 4.25, Pyongyang City, Locomotives, Aprok River, Wolmi-do, Lee Myeong-Su, Yongnam-san, Light Industries, Daedong-gang, Sobaeksu, etc. are the standing members of the first league. Among them, the first four teams are the special teams that have all different sports teams.

Also, the first place in the matches among the provincial soccer teams play in the first league. Among the provincial teams, Hamgyeongbuk-do is strong. Sometimes the national team and the youth national team play in the first league also, to have a feel for the real game. The second league contains the reserves of each teams and the province-level teams. In all, North Korea has five levels of leagues, totaling 130 soccer teams.

Even with this many soccer teams, North Korea's FIFA world ranking hovered outside of 100th place. The biggest problem is the dearth of human resources, as it is difficult to find budding stars with the requisite physique in North Korea. The physical status in the 20s depends much on the nutritional intake around age 5. But there is no way to selectively feed well the young children who will grow into a successful soccer player. North Korean soccer official bemoan that it is no use to feed well the fully-grown players who lack the basic stamina due to the malnutrition at young age. Even a talented player struggles in the international stage with inadequate height and physique.

Perhaps recognizing this limitation, North Korea has been lowering the ages of selecting its players. It had been establishing U-20, U-17 and U-15 teams, and recently it also established a number of Under-12 teams in which children of ages 8-9 play. There are several such teams under Team 4.25. This is done to feed well the future soccer stars and raise their average height.

But even the best provision of food is limited in North Korea. Recently, South Korea has been aiding the North Korean team training in Kunming, China. Because not every North Korea team can come out to train, only one team per age group would travel to China. Especially for younger, growing children, the well-fed six months in China is enough to make a noticeable difference in height compared to other soccer teams of the same age group.

(Continued in Part III)

[북한축구해부2]-남한에도 없는 5부 리그 북한엔 있다 [Nambuk Story]

As a bonus, here is an equally fascinating interview with Pal Csernai, referenced in the post.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

1 comment:

  1. Allow me just to add something, although in that infamous 1966 match against Portugal, North Korea was leading by 3 goals after twenty minutes, once one sees the game the story is a bit different.
    They were leading by three but Portugal started dominating the match afterwards.
    Besides, a team with Eusébio, Torres and Coluna (the first being considered to the day the best african-born player ever and one of the best players of all times) all of them European Champions in Benfica (this part demands a lot of stomach from me, since I'm a Porto fan, but truth is, Benfica was glorious back then), was not exactly a light team. In fact they were heavyweights.
    Also the fact that two penalties were given by the North Korean defense didn't help, but in all fairness North Korea did a good game.
    They were expected to loose, even being the top team in Asia, and the players were clearly used as scapegoats for a game that was quite well played on their end. The surprise was that North Korea scored 3 goals, not that they lost the game.
    Actually Portugal could have won the tournament, if the refereeing against England wasn't so... well that's another story.
    But if you don't mind me asking this through a comment, how successful are South Korean teams in the Asian Champions League? You've some extraordinary players in Europe (I'm an admirer of Sung-Yung Ki in Celtic), so you should have some gems in K-League as well, oh, and also how does military service affect football careers?


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