The FIFA World Cup is a glorious celebration of world football, bringing together players and fans from every corner of the globe. There are certain teams that qualify with such ease and regularity that it can often feel a little odd if they aren’t participating. Think Italy and the USA’s absence from World Cup 2018, for example. On the opposite side of the coin, a team can occasionally qualify for the finals that just raises the eyebrows of the world. In late 2009 this occurred in spectacular fashion, as North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), finished as one of the four Asian representatives.
South Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2010, a move that was both fantastic and utterly baffling. While the nation had hosted the Rugby World Cup in 1995 and had hosted a British Lions summer the year before, the powers that be elected to build enormous new stadiums, and spend billions revamping perfectly functional ones, putting an already debt-ridden country even further into the financial abyss.
The South African rugby team were reigning World Cup champions and British Lions vanquishers; however, their footballing counterparts were worlds apart. The tournament was in the Southern Hemisphere with several stadiums at altitude. The official football had the quirk of swerving like a beach ball in the wind and the soundtrack to the tournament was the obnoxious vuvuzela, a cheap plastic instrument with the uncanny ability to sound like a swarm of mosquitos. All in all, the tournament was destined to be a bit of an enigma. DPRK’s qualification only added to the mystique.
The fact that DPRK was even at the World Cup was something to admire, due to the fact that qualifying from the Asian conference was a relatively closed group. South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Iran were routinely the top four who would qualify, with Australia competing in the Asian qualifiers following the 2006 World Cup. When DPRK qualified for the 2010 World Cup they became only the fifth Asian side to have qualified for multiple World Cup tournaments. Indonesia (then known as Dutch East Indies), Israel, Kuwait, Iraq, the UAE, and China were the other Asian nations to have qualified for a single tournament.
It felt like a maiden voyage for DPRK, and it may as well have been. They participated in the 1966 tournament and did rather well, finishing second in their group and playing out an entertaining match in the quarter-final. They were placed in a group with the then-powerhouse Soviet Union, World Cup stalwarts Italy, and Chile, semi-finalists from the previous tournament in their own backyard.
To the eyes of the world, DPRK was there to make up the numbers. They were a relatively new nation and were there at a time when only one representative from Asia and Africa combined would qualify. Several high-profile African nations were on strike at this point in time and with DPRK being seen as a high-risk location there were not an abundance of teams willing to take on this challenge. A four-team group of North and South Korea, Australia and South Africa was created to decide who would be travelling to England in the summer of 1966. Prior to this group taking place, South Africa was disqualified on account of Apartheid, while South Korea withdrew on account of a logistical issue, with this mini-tournament being played in Cambodia.
A 9-2 aggregate win was racked up by the East-Asian nation and North Korea were on their way to the FIFA World Cup. Despite this large margin of victory, the expectation was that this unknown entity would be thrashed in each game. A 3-0 dismantling by the Soviet Union was seen more as the Eastern European nation simply ‘warming up’. In their second match, the Asian outfit scored an 88th-minute goal to hold Chile to an equaliser, providing an enormous amount of pride to those following the national side.
This draw with Chile was their greatest moment in sporting history, although this feat was topped just four days later. 18,000 spectators showed up to Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park to watch the mighty Italian’s stroll to victory. While those in the stands didn’t witness an abundance of goals, they did see one of the greatest shocks in football history as a well-drilled DPRK team won 1-0, courtesy of a Pak Doo-Ik strike just before halftime.
The Italian result was surprising, but what happened in their next match, a quarter-final against Portugal at Goodison Park was downright unbelievable. Pak Seung-zin put DPRK ahead after only a minute. Li Dong-woon doubled the score on 22 minutes and then on the 25th minute Yang Seung-kook made it 3-0 to the lowly ranked Asian side.
The issue with playing Portugal was that they had a striker in their team by the name of Eusébio. He scored on minute 27. He scored again on minutes 43, and 56, and finally on 59. José Augusto made it 5-3 to Portugal late on to seal the game and push Portugal through to the semi-finals. This was a devastating moment for DPRK, so unfancied to even score at the World Cup, only to have gone three up against such a terrific side in the knockout stages.
The team could fly back to Pyongyang with their heads held high, confident that they’d be back better than even at World Cup 1970 in Mexico. This didn’t transpire. They withdrew from the qualifying process for 1970, and again in 1978, with a failed qualification attempt in 1974. They failed to qualify for the next four tournaments after 1978 and refused to enter the 1998 and 2002 editions. 2006 saw a failed attempt, before finally, in June 2009, they qualified for the big one.
2010 may have been their second stint at the FIFA World, though not a single player was born when their national played out their journey in 1966. This was a new crop of players and a new opportunity to put their country on the map for the right reasons. Unfortunately, unlike 1966, there was no fairytale, no romanticism. In fact, after three games played and three defeats, a dark report of player abuse reared its ugly head.
The DPRK national side had caused a stir by finishing second in their qualification pool, finishing behind South Korea, but ahead of Saudi Arabia on goal difference and a point above Iran. This was not a particularly stellar qualification tournament for them, with DPRK only winning three times, two of them being against the bottom ranked United Arab Emirates. Crucially though, this was such a tight group that everybody was taking points of each other meaning that only South Korea was making headway. While the only other side that they were only able to beat was Saudi Arabia, they managed draws against their Southern neighbours, as well as a point against Iran. A final day 0-0 in Riyad ensured they crossed the line.
They were well drilled defensively and knew their strengths and limitations. Their game plan appeared to be one of compact defensive play and cautious counterattacking. They were realistic and knew that they weren’t going to win the World Cup in South Africa, but they also had a steely determination not to be the whipping boys of what was a fiercely competitive group. This group consisted of Five times World champions Brazil, a free-flowing Portugal, and Ivory Coast, Africa’s hottest nation. Cristiano Ronaldo, Didier Drogba and Kaka were just some of the names who were gracing Group G. North Korea could boast… well… a strong team spirit.
DPRK kicked off their 2010 campaign on the 15th of June, 44 years to the day since their first ever World Cup goal and point against Chile. This time they were facing Brazil. The odds on a point being claimed, or even a goal being scored, were slim, with 104 places between the two in the oft-criticised FIFA World Rankings. For Brazil this was just another game, the only ‘pressure’ being by how many goals they would win by. For DPRK, however, this was something different. These players would have grown up hearing stories of the famous 1966 team. They knew that they had the scope to be this for generations to come.
As the camera panned along the starting XI as the anthem played it, striker Jong Tae-se came into focus. He was sobbing, such was his national pride. He was from the DPRK, a country that was so often chastised by the world for its secretive and oppressive regime. Tae-se and his compatriots had the opportunity to change the perception on this enigmatic nation.
Brazil dictated the play and never really looked like conceding, but with each passing minute, the feeling changed. This was not the hammering that the world expected. DPRK was so resilient in qualifying and they were keeping every Brazilian attack at bay. Ten minutes after halftime, however, and the game changed courtesy of marauding Brazil right-back Maicon. He overlapped the winger breaking into the box and received the ball on the by-line, a few yards wide of the 6-yard box. With the outside of his boot, he struck a shot that seemed to defy the laws of physics upon the very first view.
The game was up for DPRK. They were a sturdy defensive side but they didn’t have the attacking muscle to force a comeback. Nearly 20 minutes later and Elano had doubled the lead, the stuffing well and truly having been knocked out of the Asian side. Many may have thought that going behind would start an onslaught, but Brazil eased off slightly and DPRK remained resolute. They bided their time and with just minutes left on the clock, they scored their first World Cup goal in 44 years. Ji Yun-nam controlled a knockdown on the edge of the box, dribbled towards goal and fired a fierce shot past Julio Cesar, the Champions League winning goalkeeper.
They had given themselves a chance, but with the goal coming in the 89th minute there simply wasn’t enough time to pull back a leveller. A loss is a loss, especially in the cutthroat nature of tournament future, but DPRK could be pleased with their resolute display against one of the tournament favourites. Their next game was six days later against a Portugal side who had been frustrated to a 0-0 draw against Ivory Coast on matchday one. Kim Jong-hun’s side had the blueprint to attaining a point, now they had to execute it.
Every little positive that DPRK had built up over qualification and their narrow Brazilian defeat was shot to hell in the Portugal game. Carlos Queiroz’s side put seven unanswered goals past DPRK to hand them one of the worst ever World Cup defeats in recent memory.
The lowest-ranked side in the tournament actually had the first real chance of the match, captain Hong Yong-jo seeing his brave attempt parried away by the Portugal goalkeeper back into the middle of the box. Unfortunately for the Asian side, Pak Nam-chol headed this over the bar to keep the game goalless.
With just under half an hour gone, the deadlock was broken. Raul Meireles put Portugal ahead to give DPRK a mountain to climb. A goal made things difficult, but Simão scored shortly after halftime to make it mission impossible. They knew they had to push forward in attack, a defeat would send them home early. They pushed the boat out to get back into the game and by abandoning their gameplan, the floodgates were open. With over half an hour to play, Hugo Almeida, Liédson, Cristiano Ronaldo and a brace from Tiago condemned DPRK to a humiliating defeat and resigned them to an early exit.
The final game saw a star-studded Ivory Coast team coast past DPRK. While elimination was likely for the African nation, they knew that if Brazil put a few goals past Portugal then a heavy win for themselves may sneak them into the knockout rounds. A 0-0 draw took place between Brazil and Portugal, but that didn’t stop the Ivory Coast from coasting to victory.
A tournament that started so happily for the DPRK side ended in misery and disappointment. It is worth noting, however, that they were not just the lowest-ranked side at the tournament, but the lowest-ranked side to ever feature at a World Cup (up to and including the most recent 2018 World Cup). The 7-0 defeat was embarrassing, but it was to a side full of players who had won numerous European league titles and Champions League medals. The Ivory Coast defeat looked bad, but the African side had something to play for while DPRK did not.
The fallout from this tournament makes for grim reading. All players, bar Jong Tae-se and An Yong-hak were publicly criticised for their ‘embarrassing’ performances. The players were then instructed by the government to vent their grievances to the coach, who was allegedly accused of betraying the Communist nation and their leader, Kim Jong-il. In essence, the players were forced to hold a mutiny against the manager who had taken them to the biggest sporting event in the world. The manager was relieved of his job and there are reports that he was put to hard labour to pay for his terrible betrayal, though this was never officially confirmed. It is hard to pull the fact from the fiction in the reports that come out.
DPRK has something of an unfair reputation. It goes without saying that the nation has had some bizarre rulers in its short history and can be seen as having quite an oppressive culture with a severe distrust towards outsiders. If you take the time to read anything by those who have actually visited the country then you realise that, by and large, it is a country with normal people going about their normal lives.
The Western World views DPRK with an air of derision, but we are nations that have voted in Donald Trump and Boris Johnson to power in recent years. We are a culture where we see grown adults walking off cliffs because we’re obsessed with playing Pokemon Go or wasting days of our life watching TikTok. We put our heads in the sand on real issues like climate change but get furious at Walkers crisps for offering an unusual new flavour.
What I am saying is that people are weird. People can be stupid, thoughtless, and ignorant. That’s okay. People are allowed to be any of these things and more. But before you flippantly criticise the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, just think. Just read a little. Dig under the mass media smear campaign and actually remember that these are real people living their lives.
In late 2009 a group of relatively normal people from DPRK upset the status quo in Asia to qualify for the FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1966. They have never really looked like repeating this feat since and have recently pulled out of the qualification process for the 2022 World Cup. We may have to wait another 40+ years for the DPRK to qualify again for the World Cup. We may never see them feature again. Whatever your view on the mystery-shrouded country, they brought something special to England in 1966 and South Africa in 2010. There is something monotonous about seeing the same sides qualifying over and over again for these tournaments. It is refreshing to see a new face in the finals. I personally welcome any unusual addition to this glorious celebration of world football and personally hope to see more teams like DPRK break through the rigorous qualification process again soon.