Sunday 17 December 2017

Kim battens down hatches as North Korea enter spotlight

Ian Herbert

There was an inauspicious start yesterday for those who hoped that a place in the World Cup finals and a glittering opening fixture with Brazil might open up North Korea to the world.

Even before the team's first press conference started it emerged that the Fifa-appointed translator had been sacked for being South Korean. As the press conference began, it quickly became evident that his position would have been untenable alongside coach Kim Jong-hun.

"Does North Korea plan to stick to a counter-attacking strategy against Brazil?" was the first question put Kim's way. "Among the 32 teams we are the Korea DPR so please don't use any other name for our team," came the reply: a bold counter-attack. The Brazil part of the question was ignored.


Cast into the media glare for the first time, Kim then experienced a level of dissent that would have been alien to him, ranging from the mischief of "Did you see South Korea beat Greece?" (No answer); to questions about what his side are eating in South Africa ("We have special chefs to prepare Korean food for our players") via "Will you or the president (Kim Jong-il) pick the team for tomorrow?"(Fifa media official Gordon Glen Watson refused to allow that one to be answered).

This was a rapid introduction to the wacky world of a side who staged their previous press conference midway through the South Africa-Mexico game to keep it under the radar and who, having refused to meet their requirement to hold open training sessions, yesterday worked out in a public gym.

North Korea's attempts at subterfuge have also included someone's bright idea of nominating a forward, Kim Myong-won, in the third goalkeeping slot, prompting a distinctly unimpressed Fifa to insist that if he plays at all then it will be in goal.

That little subplot unravelled further yesterday when Kim wore an outfield jersey as he warmed up. His coach, meanwhile, insisted: "Basically he was a striker but he is very fast and for this World Cup he decided he wanted to be a goalkeeper again." Incredibly, this answer passed without a snigger.

All jokes aside, Amnesty International also pointed out yesterday that the republic is responsible for the systematic killing, torture and starvation of its citizens, who will not have the access to the game that the citizens of every other competing nation will enjoy. But for South Africa, attention will be on Kim's enigmatic side itself -- ranked 105th in the world -- 27 places behind the second lowest-ranked nation here, New Zealand.

North Korea's mysteries are rendered all the deeper by the fact that two of the side's players have the same name. It is for the commentators to distinguish between Pak Nam-chol, the 24-year-old defensive midfielder, and Pak Nam-chol, the 21-year-old defender, whose numbers -- No 4 and No 14 respectively -- don't exactly help.

Considering very few of the squad play outside North Korea -- midfielder An Yong-hak and striker Jong Tae-se ply their trade in Japan, where they were born and raised, while forward Hong Yong-jo plays in Russia -- very little is known of a nation whose moment of fame was the defeat of Italy en route to the 1966 quarter-finals. Jong, inevitably entitled "the People's Rooney", is the one to watch after netting against Nigeria and twice against Greece recently.


Of course, that is painfully little to take into a clash with Dunga's reconstructed Brazil. The entrance of the Selecao, who may need to use Tottenham's Heurelho Gomes in goal if Julio Cesar's back complaint has not cleared up, always brings a frisson of anticipation -- though we should not expect the familiar samba rhythm to their football.

Dunga has come in for criticism for the gritty style he has introduced. The manager has retreated behind the barricades, taking issue with what he has described as a media plot against him to boost circulations and TV ratings.

Dunga's team look mentally and physically strong and quite clear tactically on what they want to achieve. The pragmatism will be praised if Brazil win. If they lose, there will be none of the affection felt for the valiant 1982 team. This is a tale of two managers under siege, then. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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