Every World Cup needs its mystery team, usually a side of minnows few know very much about — in 2006, the “Soca Warriors” of Trinidad & Tobago played that role with cuddly, heart-warming gusto. It’s a bit harder to attach that sort of sentiment to North Korea, whose dictatorial regime is one of the most alienated and vilified in the world. Still, the country’s team — known as the Chollima, or winged-horses — could have hardly scripted a more enticing opening encounter: ranked 105th in the world, North Korea will line up against global giants Brazil in Johannesburg this evening.
Of course, much has already been said of the North Koreans’ last world-beating appearance in the World Cup: in 1966, after creating a minor political crisis with its very presence in the tournament, a virtually unknown squad took the World Cup by storm, beating Italy and reaching the quarterfinals. There, they almost upset a Portuguese team led by the legendary Eusebio. But don’t look for this current team to pull off that sort of miraculous run. They are in the so-called “Group of Death” of the tournament, with Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast — three heavily favored teams, packed with millionaire superstars. (North Korea, on the other hand, is so short on resources that it has been spotted training in a public gym in Johannesburg — see above.)
The North Koreans boast one somewhat glamorous player — Jong Tae-Se, a striker raised in a Korean community in Japan who has never lived for any long spell of time on the peninsula. According to a fascinating profile of him in the Los Angeles Times, bling-obsessed Jong drives a hummer and has, only over time, grown tolerant of his teammates ogling his various fancy personal entertainment gadgets. They all seem to get along fine now: see this surreal BBC footage of Jong and the rest of the North Korean team visiting the Johannesburg zoo and engaging in conversation with a talking parrot — “Hello, my friend,” one player addresses the bird.
The majority of the squad plays in obscurity within the Hermit Kingdom and little is really known about them. What’s clear is that they aren’t easy to beat: the North Koreans play a tough, highly-organized defensive game and have an ability to frustrate more talented opponents. They have spent the past four months preparing for the tournament, traveling from Sri Lanka to Switzerland to Venezuela. “They defend very well, create a lot of complications and are very fast on the counter-attacks,” said Gerardo Martino, Paraguay coach, after his team scraped out a 1-0 result in a friendly against North Korea last month. Still, it’s unlikely this unheralded side will really be able to impede the progress of Brazilian sensations like Maicon and Kaka. The Brazilians are also known for their steel and physical prowess, in addition to their more traditional attacking verve.
And one has to wonder whether North Korea really are underdogs worth supporting: at a pre-match press conference, coach Kim Jong-Hun invoked “Our Dear Leader” multiple times and remained silent when asked whether it was he or Kim Jong-Il who picked the squad. While millions in the country endure famine and the ravages of totalitarian rule, it’s uncertain what ability they’ll have to even watch these games. After a North Korean submarine allegedly sunk a South Korean frigate in March, the South Korean company that holds the World Cup broadcast rights for the entire Korean peninsula suspended its negotiations with North Korean state television. A few games have reportedly been broadcast, though not those of the U.S. or South Korea. A fairy-tale run would be great propaganda for a state as Orwellian as North Korea’s. But it’ll also be intriguing to see how much appetite Pyongyang’s television censors will have for three back-to-back blowouts in South Africa.