JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The North Koreans have landed. But unlike every other team at the World Cup, they don’t have a crowd of colorfully clad supporters in tow.
Dressed in natty suits and waving small national flags, the “Chollima” squad — named after a mythical winged horse too speedy to be mounted — arrived in Johannesburg this week to begin their first World Cup in 44 years.
They are the mystery team of the tournament, the worst-ranked country to have qualified, and made up almost entirely of unknown players.
The isolated Orwellian state is not sending hordes of fans. Even if there are a few North Korean supporters, they might not lend much audible support. At home, North Koreans wear their street clothes to soccer matches — no wild fan apparel — and sit in silence, according to North Korean experts. They don’t stand when the national anthem is played, don’t sing along, and have no chants or songs to cheer their team, even when it is winning.
The North Korean team was expected to train in Zimbabwe ahead of the tournament, in a province where tens of thousands of civilians were killed by North Korean-trained Zimbabwean troops in the 1980s.
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Instead they have moved into their base at the four-star Protea Hotel Midrand, located in South Africa's nether region between Johannesburg and Pretoria. The hotel boasts a “hip and trendy” African-themed lounge, and a terrace where guests sip sundowner cocktails while overlooking a waterfall and koi pond.
“It is great for us to come to the World Cup in South Africa, and we have a great desire for success in the tournament,” coach Kim Jong-hun said in an official statement upon arrival on June 1.
It will be a rare appearance by the isolated country on the world stage when the team takes to the field June 15 to play Brazil at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park in their first game.
No one knows how the North Korean team will perform, although their matchup with five-time world champions Brazil doesn’t leave much hope for a first-match win. Their placement in the tournament’s “Group of Death,” which also includes Portugal and African powerhouse Ivory Coast, means that more tough games will follow.
Back home, soccer is North Korea’s most popular sport, although it is the strong women’s team that is known more for its successes than the men’s squad, says Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, which organizes trips to North Korea.
Cockerell, who has seen the North Korean team play about a dozen times, says a lack of support at the World Cup won’t faze players.
“They are used to it,” Cockerell said. “It’s normal for them.”
Games at home are sedate, to say the least, and when the team plays abroad, they have next to no fans in attendance, with the exception of matches in neighboring China, he says. The team has few foreign fans, and most North Koreans aren’t allowed to leave their country — and if they could, they likely wouldn’t have the financial means or visas necessary to attend international soccer matches.
In South Africa, the North Korean squad may have a small pocket of support from one of the country’s few friends, China, whose national team failed to qualify for the tournament.
Chinese state media reported that the North Korean Sports Committee’s Beijing office has given 1,000 tickets to a “fans volunteer army” — a reference to the Chinese volunteer army that fought alongside North Korea in the Korean War — made up of Chinese pop singers, actors and comedians. The “China Star Football Team” has sent cheerleading squads to previous World Cups, and will reportedly send a group to South Africa to cheer for North Korea at its games against Brazil and Portugal.
In their one previous World Cup appearance, in 1966, the North Koreans were the surprise success story, an underdog embraced by fans from their base in Middlesbrough, England. The team had qualified amid a boycott that saw most African and Asian teams bow out. They went on to beat Italy 1-0 in a stunning upset, and reached the quarter finals.
In 1966, fans back in North Korea were able to follow games through live radio broadcasts. For the 2010 tournament, there were rumors that North Korea was to receive a live television feed from South Korea, but that plan was called off in the outcry following the North’s torpedoing of a South Korean warship in March.
It is not clear whether North Koreans will be able to watch or listen to World Cup games. A live TV broadcast is unlikely — Cockerell points out that there are no television broadcasts at night in North Korea, and the Brazil game, for example, will begin at 3:30 a.m. Pyongyang time.
But soccer matches are sometimes shown in North Korea a few days after the actual game, he says.
Another mystery surrounds the players that have been selected for the North Korean squad. Only a few are known outside their home country, including team captain Hong Yong-jo, a striker who plays for FC Rostow in the Russian Premier League, and Japan-born striker Jong Tae-se, who plays in the J. League.
Despite the lack of information about their players, North Korea is expected to be one of the better-prepared teams, as a highly disciplined group that has played together for the past nine months.
There is yet more confusion about what the team will be wearing when it steps onto the field. The team’s shirt sponsor has not been formally announced and has been the subject of much speculation, although the Wall Street Journal reported last week that it will be the Italian sportswear company Legea.
Cockerell says that while North Koreans feel a lot of pride in their team for having qualified for the World Cup, they don’t have any illusions about Chollima’s tough matches ahead.
“People in North Korea are realistic. They would be happy with a couple of goals,” he said.
“They don’t have any chance whatsoever,” Cockerell added. “But they had no chance whatsoever in 1966.”