Before we begin, Kim, let me explain a few things. It was a brilliant handshake between coincidence and opportunity that permitted one of Honi’s reporters to sit in on the North Korean training camp as the team prepared for the Asian Cup. USYD is not an ASIO recruitment ground nor has it been infiltrated by ASIO operatives (as far as we know). Rest assured that chance sittings-in on football training sessions represent the extent of USYD’s international espionage capabilities (again, as far as we know). Before anyone considers reprisal, just know that what we observed was not disclosed to anybody until today. Our network infrastructure has a tough enough time with student timetabling – we just couldn’t take Sony-level heat. Please direct your cyber-attack energies elsewhere. Rumour has it UTS’ cyber-defences are frail.
So, the backstory being unimportant, I observed the North Koreans prepare for the Asian Cup. Their training venue was a suburban Sydney ground, its circumferential fencing draped with black sheeting that prevented both locals and opposing teams alike from creeping a sneak-peek. Aside from the operations team, the only others present were the ball-kids, the First Aid team and a smattering (presumably on North Korea’s orders) of press.
Awaiting the team’s arrival, I had high expectations. After all, North Korea did play Portugal in the grand final of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil. You thought the two finalists were Germany and Argentina? Nope. North Korea and Portugal according to the North Korean propaganda machine.
If the recent success of the North Korean team in Brazil wasn’t a strong enough indication of its prospects in Australia, perhaps the risks of underperforming were. A World Cup earlier, in South Africa 2010, North Korea suffered a series of humiliating drubbings in the group stage. FIFA later investigated claims that the North Korean manager was sentenced to hard labour and that government officials interrogated the team.
When the North Korean team balled on out of their bus, I was rather disappointed at the absence of a comprehensive security detail. I was kind of hoping for a dozen or so burly goons to station themselves equidistantly round the venue. All that emerged was the rather stunned-looking North Korean team. Stunned by the quality of the venue.
When the team stepped onto the pitch, things started to get interesting.
Training kicked off with, well, I’m not sure what it was. A silent national anthem? An homage to Kim? A militaristic explanation of the imminent session? One can only speculate and describe. The players assembled in rank and file on the sideline, facing the pitch. The head coach stood opposite the players, shouting something inaudible from our observation distance – lending weight to the “session explanation” theory. The players bowed their heads and then recited something back in unison, leaving your reporter edging closer to the homage-end of the theory spectrum. This continued for 5 minutes.
Gradually, it became quite clear that North Korean training sessions are an aural affair. Things started with standard running up and down the pitch to limber up. Then some arm swings were thrown into the mix, presumably to warm up the players’ upper bodies. All still fairly kosher. But then the noises began again. Each arm swing was co-ordinated with a team-wide grunt—“Ahh!”—similar in timbre to the confirmatory “Hoo-ah” chant of the U.S Army. As the team ran up and down the ground, the pattern went: arm circle, “Ahh!”, forward slap, “Ahh!”, back slap, “Ahh!”, double-arm flair, “Ahh!”. The team was definitely transmitting some strong Tekken vibes. I discussed the auditory spectacle with a technical official from FIFA. All he could muster was a few words about “cultural differences”. Apparently, the Thai team warms up with kickboxing.
Warm-ups complete, the team split up into smaller groups and the session shifted to skills practice. The North Korean team looked as slick as your next international football team. Only two things seemed out of place. The first was numbers 11 and 14. They must have pissed someone off really badly because they were doing laps of the oval for the 30 minutes everyone else was working on skills. Good to know that even the pros employ primary-school player discipline techniques. Secondly: is it normal for coaches to use team training time to do their own workouts? One of the older North Korean coaches spent the entire duration of the team’s first training session running laps and performing a unique stretch.
Credit where credit is due. The intra-training punctuality and discipline of the team was most impressive, which I guess is to be expected in the national team of a military state. These attributes were best demonstrated in the team-lift, performed to shift an additional set of training goalposts onto the field.. (It also must be noted that those goalposts had a perfectly functioning set of transportation wheels. So why opt to lift, rather than roll?)
Yes, the team’s unorthodox warm-ups and military precision were interesting, but they pale when compared to the players themselves. This contingent of 20 or so represents some of the luckiest North Koreans on the planet. I doubt many North Koreans have seen pictures of other countries, let alone visited them.
So what were they like?
Observing the team from the grandstands, I think it’s fair to say that the North Koreans, like any other pro team, have fun. Heck, they’re probably not the most jovial team going around, but there were undeniably smiles and laughs on the field.
I thought I would test the waters (staying the hell away from the Sea of Japan) to gauge player personality. I waved at a player collecting a ball nearby. He looked at me and then looked the other way. Fair enough. But all subsequent attempts were successful. I received a wave back from the majority of team members, often accompanied with a smile. As the team left the stadium I wished good luck to the keeper. “Thank you” was his response.
Deep down, the players—like us—are pleasant characters caught up in a bad system. It’s not their choice. This was cemented when, at the end of training, the coaching staff took to a corner of the stadium and assumed various squatting and leaning positions to smoke. It was a universal scene, common to every over-35s game worldwide. It could have been a group of local teenagers smoking at the back of Westfield. Every dubious impression of North Korea evaporates at the sight of these level-headed lay-peeps.
And, because the North Koreans seemed like nice blokes with reasonable levels of skill, I wagered on them to make it through the group stage (that, and because they’d pay out nicely). But they didn’t. Not that most back at home will find out.
I hope these blokes aren’t sentenced to labour camps. They seemed kind of alright.