2010 FIFA World Cup: Why I'm Rooting for the Ultimate Underdog, North Korea
Welcome back to your first World Cup Final in 44 years! As a gift to welcome you back to the world's most prestigious footballing tournament, you are the lucky recipients of inclusion in the 2010 Group of Death. Your fellow members of Group G: the immensely talented teams of Brazil, Portugal, and Ivory Coast will serve as your welcoming committee and represent a formidable gauntlet that you must navigate in order to progress to the next round.
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, more commonly known as North Korea, has not appeared in a World Cup Finals since their dramatic upset victory over the heavily favored Italians in England 1966. That unexpected victory propelled them to the quarter finals where they would eventually be dispatched by Portugal, ending their dream run.
We have been trained over the last 50 or 60 years, to look upon North Koreans as an enemy. After the ceasefire to unofficially end the Korean War, North Korea has existed beneath a shroud of mystery, intentionally banning any outside influences that could serve to undermine the authority of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea.
The truth remains that the nation and its people operate under the strict control of a totalitarian dictatorship led by "Supreme Leader" Kim Jong-il. Many governments of the world consider North Korea to be a rogue nation, usually only making contact with the outside world to make provocative threats and to display their military might through missile tests and grand choreographed gestures.
On the football pitch, none of this matters to me. In watching some of North Korea's qualifying matches and their World Cup Finals opener against Brazil, I see a group of young men playing the sport that they love with a fierce passion that I recognize immediately. It is the same passion for the beautiful game that I share with billions around the globe.
To be quite clear, I do not suffer from delusional disorder. I do not expect North Korea to advance beyond the difficult group stage that they have drawn. In fact, with a loss to Portugal in their next game on June 21, North Korea would be effectively eliminated from the World Cup finals, rendering their last group game against Ivory Coast meaningless.
Of course, pride is never meaningless in the world of sports. Athletes train their bodies and minds rigorously to perform under the pressures of the most demanding circumstances. When given the opportunity to represent your homeland in a highly regarded tournament such as the World Cup, the value of playing for pride can never be underestimated.
This phenomenon was evident in North Korea's opener against five-time World Cup champion Brazil. Although no one outside of North Korea expected them to even remain in the game, they put up a spirited performance against the Brazilians. Brazil couldn't unlock the tight defense of North Korea, often looking frustrated and very unlike the dominant footballing force that many expect them to be.
Even down 2-0 in the late stages of the game, North Korea fought valiantly, never showing any signs of being intimidated by their talented opponents. Maybe living behind a wall of forced seclusion helped to keep them unaware of the footballing might that exists in their Group G. When Ji Yun-Nam made a superb move in the box, losing his defenders and blasting a shot past Julio Cesar in the eighty-ninth minute, it had to strike fear into the hearts of the Brazilian faithful.
Unfortunately for the North Koreans, their shocking breakthrough moment occurred too late to alter the course of the match. The players' celebration was exuberant, encompassing all the hopes and passions of a people living a life apart from the rest of us. For all we know, the people of North Korea might be fed doctored video of the match, in which Ji Yun-Nam's goal won the entire tournament for their beleaguered nation.
We're so often told what to think about the North Koreans, and some of it may be completely justified. Let's try to forget all that for a moment and see these young men for what they are, lovers of football, not so different from you or I.
So remember, the North Korean National Football Team are not the enemies of anyone. They are simply pawns in a complicated propaganda war, unwitting participants in a twisted game far larger than themselves. For now though, in South Africa, and around the world, the only game that matters is football.
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