North Koreans are a no nonsense lot

A sneak peek at the mystery team of the World Cup and their star player, a prolific goalscorer who could also have represented Japan.

North Korea's players warm up at Makhulong stadium in Johannesburg before their international friendly against Nigeria.
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In the shadow of the Swiss Alps, just outside the mountain village of Anzere, Tae-Se Jong hit the net with a metronomic accuracy normally reserved for his hosts. The North Korean football player - known as the People's Rooney - was deep in concentration, drilling the ball into alternative corners of the goal as the sweltering midday sun beat down.

Around him was a sight not usually relayed in the Western press: North Koreans smiling. The players fooled around, blasting the ball at each other, laughing as they piggy-backed across the half-way line. They had got to know each other well over the long, vast World Cup qualifying campaign and the intensive foreign training of the past six months. Successive training camps in Spain, Germany and South America were designed to drill a close knit team that would make the motherland proud. Domestic competition was put on hold with little opposition as the country prepared for its first World Cup finals since 1966.

"We do not have a professional league like the [Japanese] J League and the [Korean] K League," said the team's translator, known as Kim, who smoked endless cigarettes with the team doctor as they watch training. "We have championships, yes, like a cup, several over four months. Most of these players come from the army team. The coach, too." In such idyllic, open climes you could forget that the players training represented the most isolated and regressive regime on the planet.

"Everyone keeps saying this about Rooney," laughed Jong as he went to the sidelines to have his picture taken with inquisitive local Swiss kids. "I don't want to be like Rooney, I want to play like Didier Drogba." When asked for an interview, Jong looked over his shoulder at Jong-hun Kim, his stone-faced manager. "Er ... If my coach agrees ..." he said. But his coach never agrees. As befits a man with a military bent who hates journalists, Jong-hun watched on unmoved, wearing a scowl as inscrutable as the granite faced mountains surrounding him. There was no security, but they did not need it. Just a few days following the most discreet team in world football, hailing as they do from a isolationist dictatorship, made that clear. Isolation had become a state of mind.

Ever since the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) qualified for South Africa 2010, the rest of the world has been scrambling to fill in the blanks. In the era of 24-hour news cycles and European football leagues that contain as many different nationalities as the United Nations, the North Korean national team is a strange anomaly, a black hole of information. All the world could gather was what was seen during qualification: a brutally long campaign that began in 2007 and which saw North Korea qualify at the expense of regional powerhouses Iran and Saudi Arabia. They showed little flair but were belligerent and organised, conceding just five goals during qualification, their 0-0 draw in Riyadh that clinched a place in the finals the perfect epitaph for their campaign. It turned out that North Korea played its football like it plays politics: extremely defensive, fiercely proud and, ultimately, prone to stalemate.

North Korea's high-altitude training camp was a rare chance to learn about the team. Their secret weapon is a player who is rarely seen in Pyongyang. Tae-se Jong is one of three Zainichi in the Korea squad, Japanese-born North Koreans who could have chosen to represent Japan or either North or South Korea. Along with the bustling midfielder Young-Hak Ahn, who also plays in a Japanese league, their inclusion means at least some of their players have experience playing under professional conditions. But their inclusion has been controversial in both countries.

"He [Tae-se Jong] is very good so they wanted him to play in [the] Japan national team but he chose North Korea," said Lee Jiseon, a reporter from Japan's TV Asahi following Tae-se Jong's exploits. "They have a great relationship now. But the first time he joined the team they [the North Koreans] dis-communicated him because of [the different] culture and life, but he is accepted." Goals tend to do that. Tae-se Jong has scored 14 times in 21 matches, making him North Korea's most potent threat. But even on an empty training ground, far away from the all-seeing eyes of the North Korean state, the distance remained. All the players were ushered on to the bus back to the hotel in Anzere in silence, coach Jong-hun's features unmoved.

In November 2004, The Chollima came to Al Ahli's stadium in Dubai for a final World Cup qualifying match against the UAE. Then, like now, few knew anything about football in the secretive state. A glimpse into their dressing room revealed the then coach Jong-su Yun sitting silently with his players, heads bowed, as two men in black suits wearing earpieces stood shouting instructions. The team's motivational talk was coming from a higher power.

Even stranger was the fact that one stand was full of North Korean supporters. Despite almost all North Koreans being banned from having a passport, the DPRK brought more than 1,000 fans with them, surrounded by black-suited goons monitoring their patriotism. As soon as the match had finished the fans silently filed on to a herd of buses, all fixed with bars on the windows. Jong-su Yun gave no clues in his post-match press conference as to who these fans were or where they came from, but he was open about an issue that is at the heart of the Korean psyche: unification.

"We are two teams but we are the same blood, the same nation," he said when asked what would happen if both North and South qualified for the finals. "At the moment we are separate, and I hope both teams can qualify for the World Cup. If we do, the two teams could be unified and go together as one." North Korea did not make it to Germany 2006, but both North and South Korea will be present this time in South Africa. No one is talking about unification any more, though. Tensions had been high during qualification when they met, and both games were played out like a hangover from the Cold War.

The first game in Pyongyang was close to being called off after the North refused to fly the South's flag or play its national anthem. In the end it was moved to neutral China. The return leg did not fare much better. The North Korean team lost after the squad was struck down by food poisoning. It wasn't long before the DPRK accused secret service elements in the South of deliberately poisoning its players as part of its "moves towards confrontation" with Pyongyang

By the time the North Koreans had made the five-hour drive to the small Austrian town of Altach, for a final warm-up match Greece, the two countries were at loggerheads after the sinking of the Cheonan which left 46 South Korean sailors dead. All contact between North and South had been severed. The only contact the North had left with the outside world was its national football team. Unsurprisingly, dozens of South Korean journalists descended on the Cashpoint Arena for training, partly because of the political situation, and partly in the hope that Korean fraternity might stretch to inside information about their opponents.

Greece, after all, are due to play South Korea in South Africa on Saturday. They were mistaken. "I will not answer this question. I do not recognise the place you talk about." Kim replied angrily to his first question at a rare, hastily convened press conference. The South Korean journalist had made the cardinal sin of referring to "North Korea" in a perfectly innocuous question. For Kim, there is no North and South Korea, only a united Korea. Talk of anything else is American propaganda.

The second question was on firmer territory. "It is because the great leader of the people [Kim Jong Il] is very interested in football and is investing in the team," he said when asked the reasons for the DPRK's recent footballing success. In the past he had suggested that the Dear Leader had even given him tactical advice. More than 4,000 Austrians turn up to watch North Korea play Greece, mostly out of curiosity. Few people bought the North Korean car flags on sale at one stall in the ground. Unlike the famous team of 1966, which reached the quarter-finals after beating Italy, winning the affections of the English public on the way, the class of 2010 emerge in a far harsher political light. Back then North Korea was just one of several countries to fall under Communism's dominion in the East. Now, it is its last true, brutal advocate.