Jorn Andersen is standing on the touchline dressed all in black, arms folded, waiting impatiently for the last seconds to drain away. The digital clock in the Kim Il Sung Stadium in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, has stopped counting—a large "90" frozen on the scoreboard. The match, a 2019 Asian Cup qualifier against Lebanon on Sept. 5, was a rare chance for the large North Korean crowd to see their men's team play. The Chollima, as the national team is known—named after a mythical winged horse that flies at supersonic speeds and can never be mounted by mortal man—had not played a home game in Pyongyang for almost two years. The last, a 2-0 victory against Bahrain in a 2018 World Cup qualification in November 2015, was meant to be followed by more World Cup games. After all, North Korea has a pedigree when it comes to the World Cup and was considered one of Asia's stronger teams. But the facts on the ground had changed.
There was an unexpected last-minute capitulation against the Philippines in their final 2018 World Cup qualifier. The Chollima were leading 2-1 with six minutes to go and guaranteed a spot in the final round. But they conceded twice late, meaning that the World Cup was finished for them. Andersen, a former Norway international striker who in 1990 became the first foreigner to be the top scorer of Germany's Bundesliga, became only the second foreign coach in North Korea's history. He was charged with getting North Korea to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup finals. That hadn't quite gone to plan either. One of their Group B rivals, alongside Lebanon and Hong Kong, was Malaysia. Both games had been postponed following a diplomatic fallout when the half brother of North Korea's young leader, Kim Jong Un, was assassinated in a bizarre plot using nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur Airport. No one knew when they would be played. Or even if they ever could be played. At one point, it looked like this game might not take place either. Two days previously, North Korea tested its sixth nuclear bomb, its largest to that point, which would cause political unease in Washington, D.C., Seoul and Tokyo. But not in Pyongyang.
And so, nearly 18 months after Andersen had arrived here and almost two years since the national team had last kicked a ball on home soil, North Korea were finally headed for a home victory. As the match entered into injury time, North Korea were clinging on to their 2-1 lead. Andersen shouted some last-minute instructions as his team fell further and further back and Lebanon desperately pushed forward, winning a throw-in by the corner flag. The crowd now expected victory.
They chanted: "Glory, Glory, Kim Jong Un."
The gate for Air Koryo flight JS152 to Pyongyang can be found in the farthest corner of the Beijing Capital International Airport. On any given week, there are only a handful of flights leaving for North Korea, but today, the flight is full. Among the well-connected Koreans returning home, wearing red pin badges of the "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung or his son, the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il, proudly on their breasts, the Lebanon national team is difficult to miss. The players are wearing red training tops with "LEBANON" stitched onto the back in huge letters. The hall is subdued, as if the squad of perhaps 30 players and officials nervously await bad news.
It was a particularly tense time to be travelling to North Korea, possibly the single-most isolated country on Earth and one that had rekindled its nuclear ambitions in prodigious style. Since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, the state had accelerated its weapons programme. In just six years, he had ordered four nuclear tests, each more powerful than the next.
"Everyone is worried back home," Omar Bugiel says. Omar is a 23-year-old striker with Forest Green Rovers in English football's fourth tier, hoping to make his Lebanese debut against North Korea. Like everyone on the team, he has Lebanese roots, but everyone has come from divergent corners of the Earth, the product of a vicious civil war during the 1970s and '80s. Lebanon's population is roughly six million. It is thought twice as many Lebanese citizens live around the world. Bugiel's family had found refuge from the war in Germany, where he was born, before he came to the UK as a teenager.
Soony Saad, sitting nearby, briefly considered not coming at all. "At first I thought, maybe I should say I'm injured," he says half-jokingly. "You see the news and all this nuclear war stuff..."
Soony was born in the U.S. in Dearborn, Michigan, where a third of the city identify as having Arab heritage. He played as a striker for the U.S. under-17 and under-20 teams but switched to the country of his father's birth when the opportunities in American soccer dried up. Now he was travelling to North Korea at a time when the few American citizens left in the country had gone the other way.
Twenty-four hours earlier, the U.S. government's previously announced ban on any of its citizens entering North Korea went into effect. It was in reaction to the death of Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old student who was arrested while on holiday in North Korea for trying to steal a propaganda poster from the wall of his hotel. He was eventually sentenced to 15 years hard labour. No one knows exactly what happened to Warmbier, but when he was released in June, he was in a coma and had been for a while. He died six days after returning to the U.S. "I thought about it and realised this happens once in your life, going to see North Korea," Soony says. He thought it best to travel on his Lebanese passport.
It is only a 90-minute flight to Pyongyang. We appear to be the first and only plane of the day. It seems empty. Once through passport control and after picking up our bags, a line of customs officials search our possessions, looking for books or USBs. Anything that might bring prohibited reading material or films into the country. The players check their phones in vain for a Wi-Fi signal. "Is there any internet?" Omar asks hopefully. There isn't, but, with the right permissions and forms, it is possible for foreign visitors to buy 3G SIM cards with a tiny amount of data for $250. This doesn't seem to impress anyone as we leave, past two huge portraits outside the airport. On the left, Kim Il Sung, the founding father and revolutionary leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. To the right, Kim Jong Il, his son and heir who took charge after his father's death in 1994. For the next few days, at least, Omar, Soony and the rest of the Lebanese national team would be cut off from the world.
There are strict rules to be followed when you arrive to meet the Eternal Leaders of Juche Korea, but one must be adhered to above all the others. In a large, sparse, darkened room, deep inside the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang, Kim Il Sung's embalmed body is lying on a deep red velvet pile in a glass sarcophagus, lit from underneath. In the gloom, at the edges of the room, soldiers watch as you approach to make sure you pay your respects. You must bow deeply three times, first at his feet and then at either side. But never at the head, which is seen as highly offensive.
Kim Il Sung was the founding father of North Korea. He cut his teeth as a guerrilla leader in China, fighting against Japanese imperialism. After World War II, with the Korean Peninsula deeply divided and with backing from the Soviet Union, he founded the Democratic People's Republic of Korea north of the 38th parallel, a communist utopia that was heavily dependent on Chinese and Soviet subsidy. In 1950, the North invaded the U.S.-backed South. The resulting Korean War, fought against a U.S.-led United Nations force, took millions of lives. Pyongyang was virtually destroyed. When the fighting ceased in 1953, both sets of troops were back to where they had started three years previously. There has never been a peace treaty. The two sides, to this day, are still technically at war. A 250-kilometre long Demilitarized Zone separates the North and South.
Today, by almost any metric, North Korea is one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Every year since the inception of Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index in 2002, it is bottom or second-bottom of the list—trading places occasionally with Eritrea. It is 174 out of 176 on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. According to Liberty in North Korea—a nonprofit organization that helps North Korean escapees—opposition to the regime can result in being sent to a political prison camp, and idolization of the leaders is required from a young age. Obedience is paramount. It is a one-party communist dictatorship where zero dissent is tolerated.
"North Korea is a country where life is nasty, brutish and short for a lot of people," says Christopher Green, an academic at Leiden University in the Netherlands who specialises in sport and has interviewed hundreds of defectors. "Life is unforgiving."
North Korea remains isolated from the world and a mystery to almost everyone. For many in the West, the first time they had seen or heard of North Korea since the Korean War was when they qualified for the 1966 World Cup. London didn't recognise the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the official name of the country. So a series of last-minute changes were made, and "North Korea" was used instead. The playing of the national anthems would also be restricted to the opening game and the final so that the North Korean anthem would most likely not be heard.
According to The Game of Their Lives, a documentary about the '66 team, Kim Il Sung met the players before they left for England and told them: "European and South American nations dominate international football. As the representatives of the Asian and African region, as coloured people, I urge you to win one or two matches." Which is what they did, bringing a potential diplomatic incident over the anthem closer than the British government and perhaps even the North Korean team could have imagined.
The DPRK team, coached by Myong Rye Hyon and based in Middlesbrough, won the hearts of the North East crowd. After being outmuscled by the Soviet Union, they drew with Chile and then, incredibly, beat Italy 1-0. They became the first Asian team to reach the quarter-finals and almost made the semis after taking a 3-0 first-half lead against a Portugal team featuring Eusebio before the favourites fought back to win 5-3. Today, the few surviving players are hailed as heroes in North Korea.
Kim Il Sung died in 1994 with his country in deep economic crisis. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had cut off North Korea's main source of trade. A succession of natural disasters led to a crippling famine, during which as many as three million people perished.
Next door in the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun lies his son and heir, Kim Jong Il. Under Kim Jong Il, North Korea's thirst for nuclear weapons increased, but the Dear Leader also began to recognise the worth and power of sport. "They recognised that a competitive advantage they have is in sport," Green says. "North Korea needs to show to the domestic audience they have strength and the ability to succeed. Sport is one way of doing that. They take it seriously."
Investment was made in the men's and women's game. There were attempts to create a united Korean football team (a united team played at the 1991 FIFA Youth World Championship). FIFA began to bring in the North from the cold. So much so that former FIFA President Sepp Blatter visited in 2002. "It felt like I was travelling back in time, flying two hours by plane, and travelling back 50 years," says Jerome Champagne, a former FIFA presidential candidate who was Blatter's political adviser and helped arrange the trip. South Korea was about to co-host the 2002 World Cup, and some in FIFA were worried at how the North would react. South Korean intelligence believed that Kim Jong Il was the guiding hand behind the Korean Air 858 bombing in 1987 that killed all 115 on board. One of the North Korean spies who planted the explosives and was later captured admitted that the bombing was an attempt to disrupt the Summer Olympics taking place in South Korea's capital of Seoul the following year.
"One of the lines was that we had to help DPRK football," Champagne says. "But the more we were engaged in helping North Korea football, the less tempted the regime would be to disrupt the World Cup in 2002." Blatter didn't meet the Dear Leader, but he did meet North Korea's nominal head of state and promised funding for new all-weather pitches and help organising training camps in Switzerland. The finals passed off peacefully.
In 2004, I saw the North Korean men's team in the flesh for the first time. A 2006 World Cup qualifier was taking place against the United Arab Emirates in Dubai. It was a dead rubber. The UAE were out, and North Korea had already qualified for the next round. On a hot, humid evening, hundreds of coaches with bars on the windows arrived at the Al Rashid Stadium. Somehow, nearly 2,000 North Korean fans had been brought to the game. The women were in colourful, traditional dress, carrying thick, rectangular pieces of wood, tied to their hands with orange thread, so that they would not hurt their hands as they clapped; the men were in identical work suits with red Kim Jong Il pin badges. They filled a whole stand, segregated by sex. A ring of North Korean security men surrounded the stand. Rather than face the pitch, they faced the crowd, whose haunting chants seesawed throughout the game. After the final whistle, the supporters all marched back silently to their allotted coaches. Later I would find out that they were labourers and maids sent to earn foreign currency. By some calculations, the North Korean government takes as much as 90 per cent of their wages.
The game also sparked other questions. Who were the players? What teams did they play for in North Korea? The dominant domestic team appeared to be called 4.25. What did that name mean, and what did the league look like? Could they watch European football back home? Would they even know who Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldinho or David Beckham were?
For the next few years, I tried in vain to travel to North Korea and find those answers, but the DPR Korea Football Association was notoriously hard to contact. Even FIFA had trouble, and it certainly didn't know what the league system was like or which teams played in it. "There was one fax number. You sent a fax," Champagne recalls. "Sometimes you got a reply." Today, there is a single email address. Over the best part of a decade, I've periodically tried it. Over the past year, I wrote several times. I've never had a reply. Even after North Korea qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, their first since 1966, it was impossible to get in. Instead, I travelled to Switzerland, where, after Blatter's promise to help, the national team regularly held training camps. On a pitch high in the Alps, I finally met a North Korea international. Jong Tae Se was the team's star striker and a member of the "Zainichi": Japanese-born Koreans. He was also dubbed in the Western media "The People's Rooney" for his likeness to the England record goalscorer.
"Everyone keeps saying this about Rooney!" he said, laughing, when I interviewed him for CNN. "But I don't want to be like Rooney. I want to play like Didier Drogba." For two days, I followed the squad as they travelled to Austria to play Greece in a warm-up game. The squad were friendly but standoffish. That ended two days before the game. North Korea had sunk a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. The squad shut down. One official told me that CNN, and therefore me, was just an extension of the CIA.
"The matches will be shown in Pyongyang," then-North Korean coach Kim Jong Hun said in a press conference after the game—which ended 2-2, with Jong Tae Se scoring both goals. He was referring to whether their World Cup matches would be shown on North Korean television. And he was kind of right. Their first match was against Brazil, and Jong Tae Se cried during the national anthem. North Korea put up a spirited performance, narrowly losing 2-1. The performance was such that it prompted the regime in Pyongyang to do something it had never done before. It agreed to air a live World Cup football match on TV. And not any game: a rematch of the 1966 quarter-final. But the game against Portugal didn't go to plan. They ended up being hammered 7-0. "They finished the broadcast too and showed it to the end," Green says.
Stories began appearing in the foreign media that the coach and players were severely punished when they returned. The same happened to the 1966 team, with stories emerging that some of the players had been sent to a labour camp for drinking and carousing with women after the Italy game. When the players were eventually asked about it 35 years later, during the filming of The Game of Their Lives, they denied it. After the 2010 World Cup, FIFA even enquired about the whereabouts of the coach. But it appears that both he and his players were safe and well. "I have never seen any evidence of the 2010 team or players being sent to labour camps," Green says.
Eighteen months after the 2010 World Cup, Kim Jong Il died. His body was embalmed and displayed in the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. His youngest son, Kim Jong Un, would surprisingly emerge as his successor.
After seeing Kim Jong Il lying in state, our tour of Kumsusan reached its conclusion, and I was handed back my camera and my phone. When I turned it on, I received an unexpected message: a push alert from the New York Times. At midday, 600 kilometres north-east of Pyongyang and at almost the exact time I had been bowing at Kim Il Sung's feet, a huge explosion was felt at the Punggye Ri military testing site, a network of tunnels below Mount Mantap. The explosion triggered an earthquake that measured 6.3 on the Richter scale, but there was no doubt. This was North Korea's sixth and biggest nuclear test.
Omar Bugiel and Soony Saad are sitting in their room high up in the Koryo Hotel overlooking Pyongyang, playing their PlayStation 4 and trying to take their minds off the possibility of nuclear Armageddon. "Thank God this works," Omar says, pointing to the console. The two are playing FIFA 2018, Liverpool vs. Manchester United. "We still don't have any internet," Omar says as Soony directs Sadio Mane to score the opening goal. "And no way of contacting home to tell them we are OK."
The players are sharing a room, but it was Soony who first realised something big had happened. No one felt the explosion. Instead, it was a seemingly impromptu celebration. "I woke up, and there was this sound of thousands of people chanting something nearby, as if they were going to a game," Soony recalls. "Then I turned on the TV, and there's one channel, RT [Russia Today]. I saw that North Korea had tested a hydrogen bomb. I didn't know if it was the start of a war."
Playing soccer in the U.S., as Soony puts it, there are "the hot-house local leagues" in Michigan, where immigrant teams will play each other and often fight. "It isn't just Arabs there [in Dearborn]," Soony explains. "There's Poles, Serbs, Albanians. It's a deep soccer culture. I would go back in the winter and play the local tournaments. It would be crazy. You'd get players turning up with baseball bats."
At one point, it seemed Soony was destined for the senior U.S. men's national team. He was part of the United States Soccer Federation's programme at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, where the country's best talents are nurtured, but he always felt like an outsider. "Bradenton wasn't ready for a Muslim-American," he says. "There was no mosque. I would bring my own halal meat. Dad would prepare chicken breasts and freeze them for me to take!" After playing for the under-20 team, his international career stalled—until one day, he got a call from Theo Bucker, a German coach who had come close in 2014 to taking Lebanon to their first World Cup. "I scored on my debut!" Soony says proudly.
He's never looked back. After a spell in the Thai league, he moved back to the U.S. and is now contracted with Sporting Kansas City in Major League Soccer. He wondered what would happen if he scored in the Kim Il Sung Stadium. "It is in the back of your mind," he says. "What if I score and they find out I am an American?" His parents had tried to talk him out of going. "They said: 'Are you sure? Is it worth taking the risk just for a game?'" Soony says. "But when else are you going to see this? We are treating it professionally. We need the points. Although we don't know any of their players. There were some YouTube videos, but we don't have any of them as the internet doesn't work, so I'm a bit in the dark."
Omar's journey had been equally circuitous as Soony's. After leaving Germany for the UK, he eventually found his way into non-league football. At the beginning of the year, he signed for Forest Green Rovers from Worthing, and in May, the team secured promotion to League Two after beating Tranmere Rovers 3-1 in the National League play-off final at Wembley.
"After the Wembley game, I got the call out of the blue from Lebanon," says Omar, who is constantly asking questions about North Korea and things he has seen. "It was an amazing month!" He was hoping to make his debut against North Korea, and aside from the prospect of war, he had enjoyed the experience and the unexpected break from the internet. "It's helped us bond," he says. "No one is on their phone, so everyone has been talking to each other."
The game of FIFA they had been playing is interrupted by chanting from outside. Soony and Omar rush to the window to see what is going on. On a rooftop, next door, several dozen men dressed in identical work clothes are marching and waving large flags in a choreographed display.
"What is that huge building in the distance, like a rocket?" Omar asks, pointing to the pyramid-like building in the near distance.
It is the unfinished Ryugyong Hotel, I tell him.
"What, all of it?" Omar says incredulously. "Is it true that people who live in Pyongyang are chosen people?" Someone had told him that only the best connected, who have proved their absolute loyalty to the Kim family, can live in the capital.
I tell him that appears to be the case. I'd earlier seen the roadblocks that prevent people from leaving or entering the city.
"This place," Soony says as we all look out of the window, "is crazy."
On the morning of the nuclear test, Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the Workers' Party and the state organ of choice to convey official news, published a full-colour front-page photo of Kim Jong Un standing next to a hydrogen bomb. "He watched an H-bomb be loaded into new ICBM," the story read. "Saying that he felt the pride of indomitability bolstering up the nuclear forces at a great price while seeing the Juche-oriented thermonuclear weapon with super explosive power made by our own efforts and technology."
The city is sweltering under a heat wave, but unlike other Asian metropolises like Beijing or Bangkok, Pyongyang is not a broiling jumble of traffic and commerce, neon and smog. The city is quiet and clean, with wide streets that see only intermittent traffic. Kim Il Sung Square, with its long dais filled with military officials and occasionally Kim Jong Un when massive parades pass by, is empty and silent, though, a few days later, a huge parade and firework display would take place here to celebrate the bomb. Tributes and posters and statues to the Kim family, which has ruled North Korea for nearly seven decades, can be found everywhere. The largest tribute is a 22-metre high bronze statue of Kim Il Sung on Mansu Hill. His son was cast and added next to him after he died.
Adverts are banned in North Korea, one of the last communist dictatorships, but every street corner has colourful hand-painted propaganda billboards extolling the state's nuclear missile programme while denouncing U.S. imperialist aggression. My guides direct me to where I am allowed to walk and to what I am allowed to see. As a foreigner, I am not allowed outside of my hotel unaccompanied. Most shops are off-limits, as is paying for anything in the local currency, the won (although a mall that has had Chinese investment lets foreigners pay in local money). There's a trip to Pyongyang's small metro line with old West German-made trains. People crowd around the display copies of that day's Rodong Sinmun with the news of the nuclear explosion. On the trains, which fill to bursting with commuters, televisions have been installed. Today's film is a dramatisation of one of North Korea's proudest sporting moments: when the North Korea women's team won the 2006 FIFA U-20 World Championship.
In fact, women's football is the dominant game in North Korea largely because it has been far more successful in recent years. They have won three AFC Asian Cups, gold medals at three Asian Games and are the current under-17 and under-20 world champions. On Sept. 23, a few weeks after my trip, they won the AFC U-16 Women's Championship by beating South Korea 2-0 in the final.
The senior women's team has qualified for twice as many World Cups as the men's, although there was a scandal after its last appearance. At the 2011 finals in Germany, five players failed drug tests. The North Korean delegation claimed they had accidentally failed the test because they took a traditional Chinese medicine extracted from a deer's musk gland. The medicine was administered, the delegation said, after several players were hit by lightning. "The North Korean officials said they didn't use it to improve performance," Michel D'Hooghe, the chairman of FIFA's medical committee, said at a press conference announcing the test results. It was the first time the substance had ever been detected in sport. "It is not part of the world of doping," FIFA's former chief medical officer, Jiri Dvorak, said. "It is really the first case in which this has been discovered." Regardless, North Korea was banned from the 2015 World Cup.
On a large island in the slow-moving Taedong river, which cuts through Pyongyang, a women's league match is taking place at the May Day Stadium. The stadium is by most counts the largest in the world. Until a recent renovation, 150,000 people would come here to see the Mass Games, a huge choreographed event that featured thousands of gymnasts. Inexplicably, it has been cancelled since 2013. But as you cross the Taedong, you can see the vast May Day Stadium—a massive concrete blancmange that looks as if a steampunk space ship has crash-landed on top of a football pitch. Inside, the terraces rise steeply. When full, it must be an incredible sight. But it is not full today.
All football teams in North Korea are attached to different industries, factories or government departments. Given that North Korea has an estimated one million-strong standing army and a highly militarised public space, the army has dominated North Korean football. The most successful side has been 4.25, which is named after April 25, the day Kim Il Sung founded his army. But league matches are a mystery. Fixtures are not published. Games are announced outside the stadium the day before. And, besides, for many years, there has not been a league in the traditional sense. Instead, both the men's and women's domestic games are a series of tournaments, held every two months year-round, usually taking place around big public holidays, like Kim Il Sung's birthday or Army Day. The teams are then ranked according to their performance over the six tournaments.
Today, Sobaeksu—a subsidiary team of 4.25—play Amrokkang Sports Club, the team of internal security, in a match featuring four players who have been capped by the full women's national team. The vast stadium of close to 120,000 seats is almost empty. A few hundred supporters have turned up, mainly the players from their corresponding men's teams. Their chants echo around the vast stadium:
"Cheer up, cheer up, Amrokkang!'
The cheering stops the moment I turn and try to take a picture. It didn't do the team much good. Sobaeksu score three goals without reply, including a stunning free-kick that no goalkeeper could have stopped. There were no team sheets or officials. The goalscorer's name remains a mystery.
Even though North Korea remains a deeply patriarchal society, the women's team is a source of huge pride. When Kim Jong Un came to power, he instructed a greater investment in sport and especially football, as it built international prestige and brought vital foreign currency into the country. At the only English-language bookshop in Pyongyang, which is full of translated copies of speeches and books glorifying the Kim family's writings, I found one that Kim Jong Un had written about sport entitled: "Let Us Usher In a New Golden Age of Building a Sports Power in the Revolutionary Spirit of Paektu." (Paektu is a mountain in the north, next to the Chinese border, that became the stronghold for Kim Il Sung's guerrilla army and has since achieved a mythical status in Korean history.) It was a letter sent to the attendees of the Seventh National Conference of Sportspeople on March 25, 2015. Or the year Juche 104. In North Korea, they count the years from the date of Kim Il Sung's birth.
The letter lays out how important sport is to Kim Jong Un and his government. And why. In it he writes:
"Sports play a very important role in consolidating a nation's strength, adding lustre to a country's prestige and honour, inspiring people with national pride and dignity and imbuing the whole society with revolutionary mettle."
More importantly, sport in general and football in particular should be approached no differently to preparing for war:
"Sportspeople should regard their training programmes as combat orders given by the party and their training arena as a battlefield for implementing the Party's ideas and defending their country."
The first sport that North Korea should seek global supremacy in, according to Kim Jong Un, is women's football. "Kim Jong Un comes to power in 2012, and suddenly, the physical education curriculum focused much more on football," Green explains. "Classrooms in high school are suddenly reorganised into football teams for training. A defector told me: 'It didn't matter if they liked football or not. Kim Jong Un liked football.'" A countrywide talent search was on, and the new players discovered would be fed into a new football academy, the Pyongyang International Football School, and then into the various national teams and potentially abroad.
A short drive from the May Day Stadium, at the Kang Pan Sok Middle School (named after Kim Il Sung's mother), Kim Jong Un's plan is being put into action. A large sand football pitch is filled with over a hundred teenagers. One large group in school uniform is dancing together in large circles. A few hundred army cadets are dressed in brown uniforms with berets and marching in formation. The musicians who make up the school's brass band are sitting on the school steps, waiting for practice. In one corner, Chong Yong Jin is trying to improve his team's shooting accuracy. The 57-year-old coach of the school team has lined up his group of boys and girls. Each takes the ball in turn to dribble and then shoot at a green painted wall, divided into different sections, with points awarded for hitting the corners. Everyone drills it into the corner as the army cadets march and sing patriotic songs. The girls are far more accurate than the boys.
"I've been teaching for five years, and the girls are better than the boys," Chong says when he takes a break. "They have won medals. They have won finals." Since 2012, the boys and girls have played together, Chong says, to help the boys improve. "Now that the female team is more popular," he adds, "we are putting more effort into the boys team."
There are no Barcelona or Manchester United or AC Milan jerseys. A few players wear the shirts of local teams, but more wear the red shirt of the Chollima. Chong is a fan of 4.25, as is almost everyone whom I ask. "But I like them all equally," he adds quickly. He still plays himself. "I am a goalkeeper, and 80 per cent of the match is down to the goalkeeper," says Chong, who is as vague on what the league system here looks like as everyone else. "There are two groups, A and B," he says eventually. "They play each other, the winner, for the championship, five or six times a year."
The sun is draining from the sky, and the crowds of children begin to filter away, including his players. But they will all be there again tomorrow afternoon and the afternoon after that. "I have hope that we will see these players trying out for the national team," Chong says before finishing for the day. "My greatest success is to come!"
In the foyer of the Pyongyang International Football School hangs a huge framed photo, almost four feet wide and two feet tall. It is found behind a velvet rope and illuminated by a spotlight. It shows Kim Jong Un shaking hands with members of the North Korean men's national team. The school was set up on Kim Jong Un's instruction in 2013. He visited it shortly afterward, and a message he wrote is inscribed into stone near the entrance.
The school is a short walk from the May Day Stadium, on Rungrado island. There are 20 all-weather football pitches here. On the smaller pitches, groups of teenagers in red national-team jerseys are playing games of one-touch football. In the centre, in short sleeves and slacks with a red Kim Jong Il pin badge, Kim Chol Ung isn't happy. He stops a game and marches on to the pitch, telling the players where they have gone wrong before blasting his whistle to start the action again. He stops it a few seconds later and repeats his instructions. "The first step is in the ordinary schools, that is the regional school you saw," says Kim, who is the deputy director here, once he is happy enough to let the play continue. "Each province has 50 schools. And those 50 schools have their own football teams. We go to the provinces, find the players and they come here."
Kim, who is in his 50s and played for the electric tram company's team in the second tier of North Korean football for 15 years, proudly shows me around the school. There are 500 children here, he says, from the ages of seven to 16. We pass classrooms as children are being taught geometry and geography. On an indoor pitch, a group of 12-year-old boys are practising keeping the ball up. A library is full of football books and periodicals in Korean. Football theory is taught in a lecture hall nearby.
Kim Chol Ung fell in love with the game at 13, when he heard the exploits of the 1966 team on the radio. Now he's one of the men in charge of nurturing the next generation of senior men's and women's internationals. "In May 2013, that was when we started to develop our sports, especially football, to bring a high level like the other countries, so we established this academy," he says. "Thanks to this academy, a lot of future players are educated and grown here." The failure to get to Russia 2018 was, of course, a setback. But the first graduates will fall out next year. Already "80 per cent of the players from the under-16 and -17 team" come from the academy. The aim is Qatar 2022. "All these players are going there," he says without doubt.
Before then, many of the players will likely get experience playing abroad. Part of this new strategy involves sending the country's best to Europe to train. By far the most successful is Han Kwang Song. Last season, for Cagliari, he became the first North Korean to score in Italy's Serie A. This season, he is on loan to Perugia in Serie B, where he has been scoring for fun, including a hat-trick on his debut. He came through the ISM academy, found near Perugia, Italy, where dozens of young North Korean players have been sent. The deal with ISM and the DPR Korea Football Association was brokered by Antonio Razzi, a controversial Italian senator who has met Kim Jong Un and believes that the world has got it wrong about North Korea.
"Kim Jong Un is a smiling person," he said in an email interview. "He likes football. He has been sending several young players to the Corciano school [ISM] in Perugia, led by Alessandro Dominici [who owns 40 per cent of ISM]." Razzi has travelled to North Korea close to a dozen times and describes how Kim enjoys music. He also claims that, when Kim was studying as a child in Switzerland, he would go to the San Siro to watch AC Milan. "I will see him again soon if things are going right," Razzi said, painting a different picture of a leader whom many around the world see as ruthless, a man who had his uncle, Chang Song Thaek, executed and is believed to have been behind the assassination of his half brother.
There has been an Italian parliamentary investigation into whether the deals with North Korean footballers contravened international sanctions. Since Kim Jong Un came to power, the number of workers sent abroad—mainly to China, Russia and the Middle East—has grown considerably, and the government has allegedly continued to skim most of their pay cheques to help replenish North Korea's depleted foreign currency reserves. This could pose a problem for the clubs that signed them. Despite assurances that wages were paid into a named account, Fiorentina cancelled the contract of one player, Choe Song Hyok, due to the uncertainty. "The willingness of Korean authorities to send players abroad is a remarkable sign of goodwill; on the other hand, they are good footballers," Razzi said. "It is a good approach. They can create bonds among countries. Sports unite. Through sports it is possible to trace a viable path of relationships."
As the New York Times recently noted, Razzi seems to repeat talking points of the regime, and despite potential violations of sanctions, the players from North Korea keep coming, bankrolled by their government. It's a huge expense given that, according to the U.N., North Korea's gross domestic product per capita is just $643. South Korea's is $27,397. Every year, ISM comes to North Korea to check for new players.
Kim Chol Ung is about to wrap up for the day. Later this afternoon, his players will be at the Kim Il Sung Stadium, working as ballboys during the North Korea vs. Lebanon match. The game will not be shown live on TV—they rarely are, not since the disaster of showing the 2010 World Cup defeat to Portugal live. But football matches from European leagues are regularly shown on TV, Kim says, usually long after they've been played so they can be translated. Recently, he has seen PSG and Manchester United play. And although he respects Lionel Messi's and Cristiano Ronaldo's talents, the best team he has seen recently is Bayern Munich.
"Who is your favourite player?" I ask.
"Thomas Muller," he replies.
He taps a finger against his temple.
"He thinks," Kim says. "Thinking, decision-making, striking."
Thousands of men and women march past the Arch of Triumph, up a wide boulevard and toward the Kim Il Sung Stadium. They are quiet and dressed in near-identical clothing. Entry for the match is free, and most of the seats are taken by schoolboys and schoolgirls wearing white shirts, black trousers or skirts, red ties and the ubiquitous pin badges. Despite the H-bomb test and the related political fallout, the game between North Korea and Lebanon goes ahead. There's a woman selling the daily sports newspaper from a small table by the entrance. She refused to sell me a copy because I was a foreigner.
Inside, the stadium is almost full but not with the 100,000 supporters that the state media has reported are in attendance. The stadium holds, at most, half that. But once inside, the chants begin. A long speech is read on behalf of the minister in charge of the Ministry of Physical Culture and Sports before the teams come out and the national anthems are played.
Both Omar and Soony have to make do with seats on the bench. This will be the first home game for Jorn Andersen with North Korea, but the coach can call on a lot of experience and a surprising number of players who have played abroad. His goalkeeper is Ri Myong Guk, who played all three games at the 2010 World Cup, including the 7-0 defeat to Portugal. Also from that World Cup team is midfielder Pak Song Chol. Three of his squad are Japanese-born Koreans, although Jong Tae Se has long departed the team. Two others briefly played in the Serbian third tier, while midfielder Jong Il Gwan plays for Luzern in Switzerland. Young striker Pak Kwang Ryong plays for SKN St. Polten in the Austrian top division after playing in Switzerland for six years. But Han Kwang Song, who was trained at the ISM academy and became the first player to score in Serie A, is not in the squad.
Andersen is so animated as he gives his instructions that, from a distance, it looks like his flapping blond curtains may take off. But North Korea are in control. After a good start, the Lebanon team seem to be struggling with the Kim Il Sung Stadium's artificial pitch. That and the heat and the stress of being in an isolated place where a hydrogen bomb had just gone off. The noise from the crowd is high-pitched and piercing when North Korea take the lead through striker Kim Yu Song's looping header. But in the first few minutes of the second half, the party atmosphere was over. Lebanon were level after defender Nour Mansour ghosted in at the back post and blasted the ball home.
It was, unexpectedly, a high-quality game. But Lebanon needed to make some changes because of injury. I thought of Omar and Soony and how they were unlikely to play after everything that had happened. Andersen also had some problems and had used all his substitutes by the 60th minute. And they paid off. With just a few minutes left, one of North Korea's Japan-born players—Ri Yong Jik—fired in from outside the box during a defensive mix-up. There are few chances for catharsis in North Korean society, but the resulting noise felt like an earthquake. Or an underground nuclear explosion. The ground shook as the players returned to their positions.
There were just a few minutes left, and Lebanon's Montenegrin coach, Miodrag Radulovic, finally brought on Soony Saad as his third and final substitute. Omar would have to wait for another day to make his debut. Soony darted around the North Korean penalty box as the Lebanon team pushed for an unlikely equaliser. The crowd willed on North Korea. Everyone had a part to play, including the ballboys from the Pyongyang International Football School. With the match deep in injury time and the ball out of play near North Korea's penalty area, one of the Lebanese players on the bench, Maher Sabra, decided that one ballboy was deliberately returning the ball too slowly. A tussle took place on the touchline. When Sabra wrestled the ball out of the teenager's hands, he blasted it back at him, narrowly missing his head. The crowd started screaming at the pitch. The situation was about to boil over. If it had happened on the street, Sabra would have almost certainly been arrested. The referee showed him a red card as the team manager grabbed him and dragged him to the dressing room, slapping him over and over on the head on the way there to show the crowd that justice was being served. It worked, and the crowd calmed down. They began to chant: "Glory, Glory, Kim Jong Un."
The game was almost over, but just as time was about to run out, Lebanon won a free-kick. It was played short, and captain Hassan Maatouk fired a hopeful, dipping shot from an improbable angle. The North Korean players stood and watched the ball. The goalkeeper seemed bamboozled, losing the flight of the ball until it nestled into the back of the net. There was a brief, collective shriek and then silence as the referee blew his whistle. The game had somehow finished 2-2, and the North Korea fans filed out as orderly and quietly as they had arrived.
The next day, there would be no mention in the state media of the ballboy incident and only a small mention of the match itself. Rodong Sinmun ran a short match report. It read:
"Both sides tried their best. With strategic works, there was the correct connection when it came to kicking the ball. Both teams attacked their goals and there was a late strike. It was a good game. The result was 2-2."
In the revolving restaurant on the 44th floor of the Koryo Hotel, Jorn Andersen is standing out of his seat, next to a flat-screen TV, reliving Lebanon's equalising goal. Highlights of the match are being played on North Korean television, 24 hours later. "Look, look!" he shouts, chopping his hand at the screen. He's pointing to Lebanese defender Nour Mansour, who has trotted into the penalty box unnoticed. "Who is covering him?" Andersen asks. "He goes in..." He's now bending his arms to mimic the Lebanese player's movement in and out of the six-yard box. "And then he goes out!" The goal is scored just the same. He sits heavily back into his seat at a table that slowly presents a darkened panorama of Pyongyang.
Given it was Andersen's first home game and North Korea had unexpectedly drawn against Hong Kong in the previous round, the pressure had been raised. "It was very quiet after the game," he says of the atmosphere in the dressing room. "They were disappointed too. ... After 60 minutes, every player knows they have to play 90 minutes. They are very tired."
Andersen manages to be both blunt and articulate, friendly and wary at the same time. He was born in Fredrikstad, a southern Norwegian city near the Swedish border. He began playing for the city's main team and, after one particularly successful season, moved to Valerenga. There he caught the eye of German football scouts. He scored 18 goals in the 1989/90 season for Eintracht Frankfurt as they surprisingly finished third in the league. After that, he became a German citizen too. From there, the goals dried up, and he retired from playing at the turn of the millennium. Since then, he has coached in Greece and Austria, but the high point was when he took charge of a recently relegated Mainz 05 that had just sacked their coach, Jurgen Klopp. He took Mainz back to the Bundesliga at the first attempt—and into the semi-finals of the DFB-Pokal Cup in 2009. But he left the club, according to German press reports at the time, after falling out with his players.
Andersen was coaching in Austria last year when he got a mysterious call. "They ask me if I want to be a national coach in Asia. Where? They said wait," he recalls. At first "they" wouldn't say who "they" were or which country they were even talking about. After a few exploratory calls, they eventually told him. "Then I was...Christ." It took months for the negotiations, largely because the DPR Korea FA maintained their mysterious way of doing business. They eventually met in Munich, and five months later, Andersen signed an eight-month contract. Part of the deal was that, unlike most other Western coaches in Asia, he would have to live full time in North Korea. After consulting with his wife, Ulla, they both agreed to come. "When I came here, I was very surprised," he says of his first impressions. "It is very clean here. It is very quiet. Not many cars. It is very easy to live here. There's no pressure from the press. No people speak to you about football." None of these are coincidence, however, given the regime seeks to control nearly every aspect of life in the country, including North Korea's media.
His appointment didn't go unnoticed. Andersen had been heavily criticised in Norway for taking the job. "I'm very surprised that a Norwegian-German man would choose to accept a job for that regime because there is no doubt that the football federation is directly subordinate to the state," said John Peder Egenaes, secretary general of Amnesty International Norge, to Norway's public broadcaster. "It was a split decision," said Trond Johannessen, one of Norway's leading football writers who has visited Andersen in North Korea. "Some were very critical, like Amnesty, of course, but also people like the former Premier League player Lars Bohinen called it reprehensible." Some, though, thought it was a positive move. "Like the then-[Norway] national team coach, Per-Mathias Hogmo," Johannessen added. "He called it 'exciting.'"
Two bad interviews had convinced Andersen that nothing good comes from talking to the press. He is in the middle of suing one newspaper, he says, and was so uneasy about talking to me that he made his own recording of our conversation. "From the beginning, I told them I have no interest in what is happening with politics," is all he will say on the matter. "I had so many questions about the press, I don't speak one word about politics here." He has good reason to be cautious. Speaking about politics in North Korea can be extremely dangerous, especially for Koreans, if you stray from the party line.
Instead he's immersed himself in the most unusual international coaching job in the world. While most national-team managers have long gaps between seeing their players, almost all of Andersen's first squad when he got here played in North Korea. He coaches them five times a week and releases them at the weekend to their club sides. There was no league as such, he confirms, just a series of tournaments every two months. "They [the DPR Korea FA] asked me to see the tournament and all the matches and pick my first national team," he says. "In this period I watched 60 matches. Two matches a day, one month." He picked some young, overlooked players who could "really play football."
Coaching the players has been a different experience. "In Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, you have to say [to the players]: 'Please, today, please make that. Today we have running exercise. Please do it. Today we run.' If you tell them [North Korean players] to run, they'll do it. I like this mentality in this country. They do everything what you say."
But Andersen could see that the players were exhausted from playing intensive one-month tournaments all through the year. "In one month you are playing around 10-12 matches very hard, every second, third day," he says. "In the final they are dead because they have played so many matches." After seeing this, he wrote a plan, and a hybrid league system was introduced in January. After years of isolation for not following the same rules as everyone else, it meant that two North Korean club teams could finally play in Asia's AFC Cup, the equivalent of the Europa League. 4.25, the army club that had dominated North Korean football, reached the knockout stages before being eliminated by Indian side Bengaluru.
Now his main issue is a diminishing pool of players. At the start, everyone played in the local league, but every month seems to see more players leave for Europe. Just before the Lebanon game, he lost midfielder So Hyon Uk to Bosnian champions Zrinjski Mostar. "I tell him, 'Don't do it!'" Andersen says. "He's a fantastic player, for me a right-winger, technical, very good, quick dribbling. I tell him, 'In your position you will get offers by better clubs.'" He believes five or six more players will leave the country after the East Asian Football Championship in December in Tokyo. For a country as closed as North Korea, that is something of a revolution.
Andersen seems to live a quiet life in Pyongyang, far from the privations that are reported elsewhere. He lives in the hotel but appears to be free to move around. He plays golf at the Pyongyang Golf Course with other foreigners, mainly embassy staff. It would seem he's been granted privilege not usually bestowed upon most North Korean citizens, the latter of whom reportedly suffer greatly at the hands of the current regime, which the U.N. has accused of crimes against humanity. The life of an average North Korean includes regular food shortages, the inability to freely leave the country, collective punishment and public executions.
For Andersen, next there is a return match against Lebanon in Beirut. The continuing political situation means he doesn't know when they will play Malaysia next.
"I'm satisfied here," he says. The extended highlights have now reached North Korea's second goal. In a few moments, Hassan Maatouk will score his last-second equaliser again. "You read so many bad things about this country. And mostly that is not true," he says before I leave the rotating restaurant. "Everything is OK. It is different, but everything is OK."
My minibus drives past the twin portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and into the departures terminal of the Pyongyang International Airport. The Lebanese team are already here, again incongruous in their bright-red training tops. Omar's mind is now thinking about this Saturday's League Two match back in England. "We've got Exeter City Saturday, but I don't think I'll play," he says sadly. Omar was supposed to be the third and final substitution against North Korea, but an early injury and a forced change had ended his chances. Now he was worried that his coach at Forest Green Rovers would be upset that he had travelled all this way not to play. "I couldn't sleep the first few days either," he says. "I hope he won't be too angry."
Even though Omar hadn't played, he thought the trip had been great for team morale. Knowing they'd be going back to their usual lives of freedom, players had actually talked of being thankful for the absence of technology, which, as Omar pointed out, was important, as this group of young Lebanese players would likely be "playing together for the next five years." Still, he was ready for home. "I can't wait to get back and have a full English and a big cup of tea, get into my car and then drive on a motorway," he says. Despite the 30-hour journey home, Omar came on as a late substitute against Exeter City and set up the consolation goal in a 3-1 defeat on Sept. 9.
The return match in Beirut a few weeks later between Lebanon and North Korea would prove to be disastrous. North Korea lost 5-0. The result meant Lebanon qualified for their first Asian Cup since hosting it in 2000. Eventually, the two games between North Korea and Malaysia were scheduled to be played at a neutral venue a few days apart. The remote Thai town of Buriram was chosen. "We gave them three goals," Andersen laments about the match in Beirut. He's in Thailand, speaking on the phone shortly before the first Malaysia game.
I ask him how was he received back in Pyongyang after the 5-0 defeat.
"They were not happy about it," he replies bluntly. "We try to explain. Maybe it's better losing 5-0 once than losing five times 1-0. We have to win tomorrow." In an empty Thunder Castle Stadium—home to Thai league giants Buriram United FC—Andersen's North Korea won both games 4-1. It will all come down to the last group game against Hong Kong next year.
That, however, was all to come. Back in Pyongyang, the North Korean customs officials diligently checked every pocket and bag looking for books and USBs, anything that might bring prohibited reading material or films out of the country. All the Lebanese players were there, including Maher Sabra, who had received the red card for his altercation with a ballboy. I was worried he might have been arrested. "He lost his head a bit!" says Soony, who'd only been on the pitch for a few minutes before the incident happened. "He kicked the ball and missed him, but he would have taken his head off if he'd connected."
Soony had a long flight back to Kansas. "I'm just glad to be going home," he says. "And I'm done with politics." With that, the last American in Pyongyang boarded his plane home.