North Korea's plan to groom future Cup heroes

North Korea Under-15 midfielder Kwon Nam Hyok (in red) getting the better of his Thai opponents in a 2-0 win. The North Korean players are known for their tall and powerful frames despite their young age.
North Korea Under-15 midfielder Kwon Nam Hyok (in red) getting the better of his Thai opponents in a 2-0 win. The North Korean players are known for their tall and powerful frames despite their young age.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

When striker Jong Tae Se cushioned his header for left-back Ji Yun Nam to score in the gutsy 2-1 defeat by Brazil in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, it sparked off football fever in North Korea and ignited a dream to groom a new generation of football heroes.

The secretive socialist state, famous for its run to the quarter-finals of the 1966 tournament and beating Italy 1-0, paraded the fruits of their labour in Singapore, when its Under-15 side dominated the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Under-16 Championship qualifiers.

Coach Kim Yong Hun's youngsters breezed through Group H with a perfect record of three wins, scoring 12 goals and conceding none as Cambodia (7-0), Singapore (3-0) and Thailand (2-0) were swept aside.

Coach Kim said yesterday of his country's bold ambition: "If these players continue to develop well, they can in the near future join the senior team and help North Korea qualify for the World Cup."

Little is known about the North Korean team but their spokesman, who declined to be named and is the squad's only staff authorised to speak to the media outside official news conferences, shed some light with The Straits Times about football development in his country.

According to him, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un personally drove the project to launch the Pyongyang International Football School, which opened in 2013.

There, boys and girls carefully selected from schools and clubs across the country are coached the quick passing and movement of Barcelona's famed tiki-taka.

"Football is very big in North Korea. In Pyongyang International Football School, we have over 200 players to choose from, they are all very good," he added.

Noted for their tall and powerful frames despite their young age, the spokesman revealed that a sturdy physique is a pre-requisite for budding North Korean footballers.

He said: "Their physical condition is very important. I saw some of Singapore's players and even though their individual skill is good, they are so small-sized."

While his charges may be future national football heroes, they certainly do not have the equipment and apparel to match their talent.

The spokesman said: "Sponsorship is difficult. We face a lot of problems in getting companies to sponsor us. Nike and adidas - we asked them but they didn't want."

In Singapore, the North Korean players donned unbranded jerseys emblazoned with the state flag. Although they wear boots from adidas and Nike, the footwear are not the latest models on the market.

Even though trade sanctions have isolated North Korea, the state is determined to get its fix of football. English Premier League and Spanish La Liga matches are shown there, albeit through delayed telecasts.

According to the spokesman, Barcelona's Lionel Messi is the most popular player in his country while national team striker Jong, off the back of his 2010 World Cup heroics, is enjoying cult status as the Wayne Rooney from north of the 38th parallel.

While the spokesman declined to provide details of their training regime, a peek at the team's sessions reveals an approach based strictly on discipline and hard graft.

On the field, coach Kim's players all have the same crew cut hairstyle, and impressed with their superior strength and fitness.

At training, the youngsters form two neat rows to listen to coaching instructions. While there was some laughter, the mood in the camp was generally serious.

While they have been ruthless on the pitch, they have shown a softer side off it. Case in point: after thrashing Cambodia 7-0, the North Korean boys faced their opponents' bench and respectfully bowed to the vanquished.

North Korea's football development has shown much progress.

In 2014, North Korea beat rivals South Korea 2-1 at the AFC U-16 Championship final in Bangkok.

Fifteen from the 21-strong U-15 squad competing in Singapore were from the U-14 team that finished second in the AFC U-14 tournament last year, losing 3-0 to Iraq.

It is clear these players are groomed for a bigger stage.

"We all have a dream to qualify for the World Cup," said the spokesman. "We will always remember and be inspired by our 1966 World Cup team."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2015, with the headline 'North Korea's plan to groom future Cup heroes'. Print Edition | Subscribe