The Hermit League

North Korea is often in the news, but they are rarely there because of soccer. Far more often, they are there because of a missile test (the latest of which happened on Sunday), threats of war against the West usually quickly dismissed as empty threats (except when they’re not), new footage or testimony of the totalitarian existence its citizens must endure or the hedonistic nature of the regime itself, tea-leaf reading about what the latest goings-on may mean geopolitically for the future, or what it means now, or whether the goings-on have actually gone on at all, or tea-leaf reading about China’s mood: ever-hopeful that they may cease helping to prop North Korea up, but skeptical and maybe even fearful about the prospect of them actually doing so.

This is not to say North Korea doesn’t have any sort of a soccer program to speak of. The men’s national team has historically not been nearly as far off the pace as its measly two World Cup appearances would suggest; a number of times the Chollima have been in the mix but come up short, and other times they’ve withdrawn- or been withdrawn- for typically political reasons. In 1970, they withdrew because of a refusal to play against Israel; in 1978, they withdrew for reasons that I haven’t seen spelled out, but given that South Korea was in their qualifying group, it’s not hard to guess. In 1998 and 2002, they didn’t enter due to South Korea having won the rights to the 2002 World Cup. Two appearances understates their ability a bit.

The women’s team is one of Asia’s strongest and thus frequently gets into their World Cup, although they struggle to make it out of the group stage, and this year they’ve been banned entirely due to five of their players testing positive at the 2011 Women’s World Cup for deer glands.

There is no way to make that not sound weird.

The thing here, though, is that when North Korean soccer is mentioned, it’s always in terms of their national teams. The club sides, sealed within the borders and shut off from the world, are a near-total enigma. While most clubs around the world draw strength and identity through some sort of personal distinctiveness, North Korean clubs do nothing but accentuate the enforced lack of an identity beyond that which is imposed by the state. The logos offer little but block lettering: Amrokgang, April 25, Chadongcha, Kigwancha, Pyongyang City. And this is when a logo is able to be found at all. The uniforms are about as plain as can be, and none of them have a player’s name on the back, just the uniform number.

You can, however, tell one thing: which games the regime particularly cares about, and probably which one is the favorite club as well: April 25, who is far and away the leader in league titles. They’re the one that Kim Jong-Un and military officials are most likely to attend in person- such as this 2013 cup quarterfinal between April 25 and Pyongyang, eventually won 2-0 by April 25. They also happen to be owned by the army. How can you tell which ones are being given the loving attention? They’re the ones where the camera is making sure to show the capacity crowd. Here’s another sellout from 2014 between April 25 and Hwaebul, won 1-0 by, sure enough, April 25. [Edited March 11 to actually include link.]

What of the ones not being favored? The camera tries very, very hard not to permit a view of the crowd for those games. Here’s a four-match reel from 2014, two of them involving April 25, and you won’t find one shot of the crowd in the bunch, even accidentally. But once in a while, such as here, you can see the cameramen occasionally unable to get low enough, thereby revealing… a very sparse crowd.

This (Mangyongbong vs. April 25, 2013 season) is a more indicative shot of a non-“marquee” audience, and really of most smaller leagues and clubs around the globe. A cluster of fans around midfield, and total barrenness out towards the goals.

You’ll also note, the games with any footage at all are all taking place at one of two venues, Kim Il-Sung Stadium or Yanggakdo Stadium, both in Pyongyang. Both feature high walls along the sidelines, likely to aid in hiding the sparser crowds, though poking around available photos, that’s a common feature in other North Korean stadiums as well (as is having one grandstand significantly larger than the other, as Seosan Stadium demonstrates, almost certainly for display purposes of some sort from people in the larger stand.) And of course, there’s a total lack of advertising.

So with all of this in play, the big question is, what is it like actually attending one of these games, at least from the perspective of a Westerner? In April 2013, Tim Hartley of the BBC, along with a few unnamed traveling buddies, found their way into a match between Amrokgang (owned by the North Korean police) and host Pyongyang City at Kim Il-Sung Stadium. RSSSF identifies the game as part of the “Mangyongdae Prize Sports Games”, the format of which is uncertain and probably inconsequential in any case because who exactly wins is likely of little concern compared to glorifying the regime, which is far better served by the sellout crowd. Which is what Hartley saw. There was no chance North Korea was going to show a BBC reporter a non-capacity crowd.

Hartley quite reasonably suspected that most of the crowd was ordered to attend, especially since, looking around, he noticed that many of the fans, dressed in military garb to a large degree, were the furthest thing possible from actual fans, showing zero interest in the game. (In stark contrast to anything those state-run highlight reels from earlier may have suggested.) They did not cheer the proceedings. They did not comment on the proceedings with their neighbors. Some of them had brought something to read during the game. They did not react one iota even when penalty kicks were awarded, leading to the first two goals of the game, one per side. The third and final goal, scored in open play by Pyongyang City in the fourth minute of stoppage time, literally the final kick of the game, did get at least a little reaction, but only just. At one point, the BBC group tried to get a cheer going, only to be met with uncomprehending blank stares.

At halftime, two brass bands played, one behind either goal. They drowned each other out. Nobody cared. At the end, the crowd filed out in silence.

The actual games themselves, as evidenced by the gameplay in the highlight reels as well as that seen by Hartley, is akin to something you might see if the people behind Leave It To Beaver decided to produce it. The players press their opponents hard, nobody dives, but the moves are very basic and the ball doesn’t move as emphatically as it might in a higher-quality league. The ball will get a small distance into the air, but half-court longballs are beyond their ability. The goalkeeper isn’t able to leap quite as far, the shots he takes aren’t able to be fired in quite as fast or aimed quite as far towards the edges of the net.

It’s a style of play that you really would hope to see a bit more of. Perhaps in a place with fans who truly want to be there.

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