Reclusive North Korea shows World Cup game live, but team suffers humiliating defeat

By Jean H. Lee, AP
Monday, June 21, 2010

North Korea watches live as its team loses big

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — North Korea picked the wrong moment to allow its people to see a bit more of the outside world.

The authoritarian regime was so proud of its soccer team in the World Cup that it allowed an unprecedented live broadcast back home of the match against Portugal — a rarity for the communist nation that normally exerts strict control over the media.

What ensued was a different sort of history: North Koreans, used to seeing only positive news about their reclusive country, watched as their soccer team received the worst drubbing so far in this year’s tournament and was prevented from advancing to the next round.

As the 7-0 loss to Portugal concluded, the North Koreans quickly halted Monday’s coverage. “The Portuguese won the game and now have four points,” the Korean Central Broadcasting commentator said. “We are ending our live broadcast now.”

It then cut to factory workers and engineers praising North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Dejected and dispirited, the North Korea team quickly left the stadium in Cape Town with heads bowed.

Star forward Jong Tae Se dropped to his knees as the game ended. He said he was upset they had made so many errors and apologized to his nation for failing to fulfill its World Cup hopes. The normally loquacious Jong later slipped out another entrance.

Portugal’s Tiago, who scored two goals, wished the North Koreans well in their final game against Ivory Coast but said he wasn’t sorry about the lopsided score, since getting lots of goals can help a team advance to the next round.

“It’s just football,” he said.

But it’s more than a game for North Korea, an impoverished nation struggling to feed its people. The isolated country is locked in a standoff with world powers over its nuclear program and has been hauled before the U.N. Security Council over the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship in March.

It is the first time in 44 years that North Korea has qualified for the World Cup, a rare point of pride for a nation increasingly at odds with the outside world.

North Korea’s players were feted as heroes when they returned home last year after qualifying for the World Cup. The sport is North Korea’s most popular and has one exceptionally important fan: leader Kim Jong Il.

Kim, 68, used North Korea’s 1966 World Cup success as political capital in his campaign to take over leadership from his father, Kim Il Sung, according to Moon Ki-nam, a former national coach for North Korea who defected to South Korea in 2004.

Kim was officially anointed his father’s heir in 1974 and assumed leadership upon his father’s death in 1994. He’s widely believed to be grooming his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to take over.

Kim Jong Il even gave the national team “in-depth guidance,” a North Korean soccer official said in April.

Kim and his totalitarian leadership allow only one state-run TV channel, ban shortwave foreign radio broadcasts and restrict outside Internet access to the elite.

Yet coverage of the 2010 World Cup has been unprecedented, with state TV airing tape-delayed video of a number of matches in full — including that of rival South Korea — despite questions about how the broadcaster would get the feed.

In the past, only snippets of World Cup games were shown, sometimes weeks later. In 2002 and 2006, a South Korean broadcaster relayed live video as part of reconciliation efforts with the wartime rival, but North Korea chose to show only tape-delayed parts of matches.

Negotiations began last year to provide video again but stalled amid rising tensions over the sunken warship.

South Korea’s SBS television, which owns the broadcast rights for the entire Korean peninsula, said it would not beam the World Cup to North Korea. In a last-minute deal, Malaysia-based Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union offered North Korea free live coverage.

After showing the team’s 2-1 loss to Brazil last week nearly a day later, Pyongyang’s state TV said the much-anticipated match against Portugal — the nation that ended the team’s World Cup dreams in 1966 — would be shown live.

The broadcast was the first North Korean overseas match to air live back home, a small but significant milestone for a country that filters what North Koreans see of the outside world — and a gamble for a regime hoping sports success will spur national pride.

Nervous but excited, goalkeeper Ri Myong Guk’s older brother and other relatives settled in at his in-laws’ apartment outside Pyongyang with beer and snacks to view Monday’s game.

“Watching the game live, I felt like I was in South Africa myself,” the brother, Ri Myong Il, told TV news agency APTN in Pyongyang.

But all were silent when Raul Meireles scored Portugal’s first goal after 29 minutes.

“Our defenders didn’t see him unexpectedly coming out from behind,” the state TV commentator said. “They should have more awareness about those coming from behind.”

At halftime, viewers were shown some World Cup history and an update on overall results, as well as the patriotic song “We Love Our Country the Most.” State TV made no attempt to conceal scenes of the crowd and sponsors’ ads plastered around the stadium.

Three more Portugal goals in the second half in a matter of minutes were met with more silence by Ri’s family in Pyongyang. By the fourth goal, all hope was gone. The end of the match, after seven goals, came as a relief for the goalkeeper’s relatives. There was a distinct sense that watching it live made the loss all the more painful.

The exhausted North Korea team trudged off the field, not even bothering with the tradition of swapping jerseys with the Portuguese players.

“Tactically speaking, we fell apart and couldn’t block their attacks,” coach Kim Jong Hun said. “As the coach, I consider it my fault for not playing the right strategy — that’s why we conceded a lot of goals.”

Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz offered words of support for Kim and his players.

“I register my respect for the North Korean team, whose players played in an extremely dignified way, without fouling players and with their head lifted very high,” he said. “I want to tell the North Korean coach that sometimes we have to face these results, and would just like to manifest my respect.”

But defectors, including the ex-North Korea coach, said poor play overseas has meant punishment at home, including being “purged” and sent to coal mines.

The North Korea coach insisted Sunday that no punishment would await the team if it failed to advance.

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose; it doesn’t always turn out the way you want. But there are going to be no further consequences,” he said.

Despite the devastating loss, family members refused to criticize the team.

“If they have learned a lesson from today’s match and accumulate more experiences in the future, I firmly believe that they will achieve better results in the future,” Pak Il, the goalkeeper’s father-in-law, told APTN.

Midfielder An Yong Hak, one of two Japan-born players on the North Korean team, said the mood in the locker room “wasn’t good.” But he was already looking to their final game with Ivory Coast.

“We made a lot of mistakes that forced us to eat too many goals,” he told The Associated Press. “But we’ll try our hardest … and do our best in the final game.”

Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.

(This version CORRECTS Corrects age of Kim Jong Il to 68 instead of 67.)

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