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North Korea live to regret taking big TV gamble

It was supposed to be North Korea's moment of glory, a revenge match against Portugal aired live for the first time in a communist country that exerts strict control over media coverage.

It ended up a 7-0 humiliating loss that crushed the team's World Cup dreams as North Koreans watched back home -- perhaps having the opposite effect intended by a leadership seeking to rally solidarity in the impoverished nation by showing the match live.

"The Portuguese won the game and now have four points. We are ending our live broadcast now," a Korean Central Broadcasting commentator said, quickly cutting to footage of factory workers and engineers praising North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

It is the first time in four decades that North Korea has qualified for the World Cup, a rare point of pride for a nation increasingly at odds with the outside world.

North Korea's football players were feted as heroes when they returned home last year after qualifying for the World Cup, and the pressure on them to perform on football's biggest international stage was immense.

Kim Jong Il and his totalitarian leadership maintain strict control over the media, allowing only one state-run TV channel, banning shortwave foreign radio broadcasts and restricting outside internet access to the elite. Yet coverage of this World Cup has been unprecedented, with state TV airing tape-delayed footage of a number of matches in full -- including that of rival South Korea -- despite wrangles about how the broadcaster would obtain the feed.

After showing the team's 2-1 loss to Brazil last week a day late, Pyongyang's state TV announced on Monday that the much-anticipated match against Portugal -- the nation that ended the team's World Cup dreams in 1966 -- would be aired live.

It would be the first North Korean football match played overseas to air live back home, a small but significant milestone for a nation that seeks to filter the view North Koreans have of the outside world -- and a gamble for a regime hoping success on the pitch will spur the people's pride.

Nervous but excited, goalkeeper Ri Myong Guk's older brother and other relatives settled in at his in-laws' small apartment outside Pyongyang with beers and snacks.

North Korea came out attacking, much to their delight.

"Watching the game live, I felt like I was in South Africa myself," the brother, Ri Myong Il, told TV news agency APTN in Pyongyang.

But it was silence all around when Raul Meireles scored Portugal's first goal 29 minutes in.

"Our defenders didn't see him unexpectedly coming out from behind," the state TV commentator said. "They should have more awareness about those coming from behind."

At halftime: World Cup history and an update on overall results. Also, the broadcast of a patriotic song: "We Love Our Country the Most." But state TV made no attempt to conceal scenes of the crowd and ads for World Cup sponsorship plastered around Green Point Stadium.

Three more Portuguese goals in the second half, in a matter of minutes, were met with more silence in Pyongyang. By the fourth goal, all hope was gone. The end of the match, after seven goals, came as a relief for goalkeeper Ri's family. And there was a distinct sense that watching it live made the loss all the more painful for the North Koreans.


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