Okay, let’s get one thing clear: no one likes horrible totalitarian dictatorial regimes that brutalize their populations, starve their people through incompetent and willfully destructive leadership, and spent most of their time threatening war on the outside world while trying to develop nuclear arms to use should those conflicts ever materialize (or just to keep around the bunker to look cool). Therefore, virtually no one feels anything but contempt for the masters of North Korea, or—conversely—anything but empathy and pity of North Korean citizens whose lives they ruin. And now, can anyone not feel at least a little bit of admiration and support for the plucky North Korean players who, last night in Johannesburg, unexpectedly played the mighty Brazil scoreless for a large chunk of the match?
Of course, it’s almost impossible not to fall for any major underdog struggling to stand toe-to-toe with the world’s top team—especially in such a marquee event like the World Cup. But given the unique despicability of the Pyongyang regime—and equally singular hardship of its people—it was a bit hard working up lots of enthusiasm for the world’s 105th-ranked side facing globo Number One. Indeed, the strangeness of pulling for one of the remaining original nations in “the axis of evil” as a theoretical good guy—the Asian David squaring off with the South American Goliath—was such that it wasn’t until the second half had actually started (and with Brazil still astonishingly scoreless) that I was able to venture my first, timidly-shouted “Go North Korea!” (And even then it felt as odd as shouting “Pol Pot’s The One!” or “Cheney For Pope!”) And while the, uh, Chollima never looked like a side that was going upset the legendary Seleção, for nearly an hour it did display that quality a high school football coach once identified in a bumbling, Baby Huey-like defensive linesman who whose play was nevertheless effective: that strange, usually unintentional talent for always being in just the right spot to screw up whatever plans his far better offensive rivals were unfolding. For 55 minutes, North Korea turned getting-in-the-way into an art form.
To be fair, North Korea qualified for this Cup fair and square—and for the first time since 1966—so there had to be more to its initial defensive effectiveness than its players simply stumbling into Brazil’s path. But whatever the balance between skill and serendipity was, it got hard not to openly cheer for the North Koreans to pull off a scoreless coup against Brazil as time pressed on. Of course, that idea had to be seriously downgraded after Maicon streaked aside the North Korean penalty area in the 55th minute, and wrapped a cracker of a shot around the front post–and past the way-too-advanced North Korean keeper Ri Myong-guk. (Ri’s teammates would later blame their loss on Ri’s error—a treatment one wished Ri’s peers had spared him, though exactly the kind of finger pointing at the keeper that would have made for fine entertainment coming from England.) After Brazil went up 2-1, neophyte supporters of the Mystical Horses (Note to NoKo: if you’re going to do this World Cup thing often, you’ll need a hipper name, okay? How does the Totes Cool strike you?) were forced into slumming with the hope of seeing their ephemeral favorite team ever put at least one shot into the net—a prayer answered late by Ji Yun Nam. Even the 100 specially flown-in North Korean fans seem genuinely thrilled as they looked on in their plastified Enver Hoxa leisurewear.
Of course, there really should be no reason to hesitate rooting for North Korea’s players. They doubtless have no more fondness for (or loyalty to) the Pyongyang regime than Iran’s team does—especially after Teheran purged the national side last year when players wore green bands in support of protesters being bludgeoned in the streets back home. Teams and their members tend to play for the team, their families, for their people, and—if need be—whatever good they can identify in otherwise crappy homelands. Who cares what kind of bogus ideological glorification corrupt leaders of equally fungoid systems will try to put victories to—be it socialism in one country, cultural revolution, racial superiority, the inherently wiser nature of deregulated markets, or similarly nonsensical notions like “jobless economic recoveries”. So long as fans refuse to buy manipulative external associations to play, every team is just another side during international tournaments–so long as it’s not actively using sport as propaganda devise as an active partner of government.
That’s why I, for one, will be less sheepish about cheering Ri, Ji and the other North Korea lads during their matches against Portugal and the Ivory Coast. And I similarly can’t deny feeling confident that the Totes Cools may score yet again before this Cup is over–perhaps doing for Enver Hoxa fashion style what the vuvuzela has done for obnoxious noises.