Kim Jong-Il and the North Korean World Cup Squad

Hua's note: Readers of this space will recall our enduring fascination with Cristiano Ronaldo, whose Portugal side is currently engaged in a fits-and-starts, rain-soaked battle with the Ivory Coast. This, then, is a morning to revisit Pete L'Official's meditation on the mercurial (more on this word later this week...) Portuguese star, from back when this blog had a proper RSS feed.

So far: I wrote about the World Cup TV commercials, Anmol Chaddha considered the meaning of rooting for South Africa, Pete L'Official measured the dimensions of Louis Vuitton's World Cup trophy case, Anmol reported on R. Kelly's allegiances, I wrote about vuvuzelas and Piotr Orlov recounted the beauty and tragedy of Dutch football. This afternoon: our first look at North Korea. Why don't we first look at this YouTube clip, which illustrates what all those North Korean bars will be buzzing about later today:


Spotted at Can't Stop the Bleeding (with the charming caption They Train Econo)

There's Two Koreas?
By Hua Hsu

Oh how the underdogs capture our imagination, even when they may or may not have been hand-selected by Kim Jong-Il. Of the many comments that accompany the above YouTube clip, which features the North Korean World Cup squad training at a public gym in Johannesburg, this one just about sums up the complexities of merging the trope of the sporting longshot with real global politics:

Cool! Reminds me of the Rocky-movies, when Sly trained in the freezer room in the meat plant, catching chickens and running around while his opponents had state-of-the-art doctors and equipment. Very sympathetic, I will root for them in their game vs. Brazil. Good luck! :)

As adjacent posters point out, the North Koreans' no doubt pathetic training budget has everything to do with the mysterious appetites of Kim Jong-Il. And it's not as though the North Koreans view themselves the way the rest of the world might: "North Korea will win the World Cup," the vice president of the North Korea Football Association told FourFourTwo magazine this past spring.

Of course, after proclaiming this, he added that it would be "because of the great support of our Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il that our national team will make this great achievement." Which is exactly the kind of statement—there are plenty more here—that makes the North Korean team the most novel underdogs of them all. Not only do they find themselves in the figuratively-speaking "Group of Death" (with one useless player, no less), they are near-delusional in their outlook. (They are not, however, the most hapless squad: they don't feature a banker currently toiling at the amateur levels.)

Others besides the Rocky-riffing commenter above have cast their football allegiances with the inscrutable Chollima. They can use the support. They have no rabid bloggers, no away fans who've followed their squad to South Africa, no emigrant outposts in the world's metropoles, and it's near-impossible to get any North Korea gear, though there is this nifty, vaguely hipstery T-shirt featuring a "mythic horse." They've given out free tickets to Chinese "rent-a-fans," who, as we've previously pointed out, are quite committed. But unlike most other Enberg-ready underdogs, North Korea's laughingstock-ness—did you see that clip of them training at a public gym?—can't be absorbed into our usual sporting tropes. We know why they are training at a gym, even if they are told otherwise; we know they stand no chance, even if they have been prompted to proclaim their superiority. All of it is kind of funny and bizarre, but it's also the result of political decisions—ones their neighbors to the south take very seriously. What's even stranger, the limited press freedoms (or altogether lack) means that few North Koreans will ever bask in these vibes of the slightly-condescending, trans-oceanic empathy.

As most New Yorkers flock to the nearest "ethnic joint" in hopes of experiencing the World Cup as authentically as possible, North Korea remains unassimilable. Even the usually reliable standards of pan-Asian friendship fail them. The Wall Street Journal's guide to World Cup-friendly bars includes this curious entry under North Korea:


NORTH KOREA

Though there are few establishments supporting North Korea, you can get some North Korean flavor at Brooklyn's Woodwork, which will serve Korean food when North Korea takes the field.

One might assume that Woodwork either didn't know there was another Korea, or maybe they were just trying to corner a tiny, unwanted market, as evidenced by this call, placed yesterday to a bar called "Players" in Manhattan's Koreatown:

"Hi. Are you going to be showing the Brazil-North Korea game tomorrow?"

There's always Cubbie's.

"(laughs) Uh, no, dude."

Presented by

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.

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