NKorean team's World Cup visit comes to an end

Jun 25, 2010 - 6:52 PM By JEAN H. LEE Associated Press Writer

NELSPRUIT, South Africa(AP) -- North Korea had little time to make an impression at the World Cup.

Knocked out of the first round after three straight losses, capped by a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Ivory Coast on Friday, the tournament provided just the briefest glimpse of athletes from one of the planet's most isolated nations and last Cold War outposts.

What the world saw: friendly, shy, humble young men kept out of the media glare as much as possible who were outclassed on the field.

They took to the field Friday determined to do well in their last match at the World Cup. Instead, they found themselves knocked around by the bigger, stronger and more aggressive Ivory Coast players.

"The Ivory Coast team has some physically powerful players, and their level of technique was extremely high," midfielder An Yong Hak said after the game. "It was very, very difficult."

When the game - and their World Cup - came to an end, the Koreans left the field like good sportsmen, bowing to their coach as they exited. An called it a valuable learning experience, and vowed his team would make it back to the World Cup again soon.

"We went into this game knowing there was a big difference in the level of playing," he said. "Still, playing on the same field with them, bumping into them - it was a good experience. A very good experience."

The team arrived with "Again 1966" as its slogan - a reference to North Korea's only other World Cup appearance, when the team staged one of soccer's biggest upsets by beating Italy 1-0 to advance to the quarterfinals.

Yet under immense pressure to provide a boost back home, the team couldn't provide a repeat performance. The on-field highlight was Ji Yun Nam's 89th minute goal against five-time world champion Brazil in a 2-1 opening game loss.

Off the field, the team traveled by bus - as World Cup teams all do - to and from its closely guarded hotel and practice complex, which for the North Koreans was in a township north of Johannesburg. A chef from Pyongyang prepared the players' spicy kimchi every day, and the North Korean ambassador brought them noodles.

Yet so intense was the curiosity about the team that a simple technical error - four names left off the roster before the Brazil match - sparked a media frenzy about their "disappearance."

The players solved the mystery simply by turning up for the practice the next day, kicking around soccer balls and exchanging smiles and lighthearted banter with one another.

The rare foray overseas gave the players a brief glimpse of life outside the Hermit Kingdom. They got to visit the Johannesburg Zoo one morning and mingled with locals at a Pretoria Virgin Active gym where they worked out.

They shook hands with children and signed autographs, even teaching them some words in Korean and learning some phrases in the local South African lingo.

An and star forward Jong Tae Se - both North Koreans born and raised in Japan - emerged as spokesmen for the team, Jong answering reporters' questions in four languages: Korean, English, Japanese and Portuguese.

Jong, the team's biggest personality, was in tears as his nation's anthem was played at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, and after the team's brutal 7-0 loss against Portugal - by far the biggest rout of the tournament.

He flashed the peace sign Friday as he got off the team bus before the match, but looked pained as he walked off the field afterward, biting his lip, having failed to score even one goal in the tournament.

"We really wanted to do well since this was the third and last game of the World Cup, and I really felt I needed to score a goal today," Jong said. "Because I didn't, I'm really upset and a bit heartbroken."

Coach Kim Jong Hun displayed flashes of testiness with the curious press throughout the tournament, bristling at questions that strayed into political territory. But he stuck to FIFA's minimum requirements for media availability, and showed his contrite side in taking the blame for the team's lopsided loss to Portugal.

North Korea may not have exacted revenge on Portugal, the team that knocked them out in 1966, as they had hoped but they will return home as heroes regardless, Kim said. The day after the Portugal game, they were back on the practice field, relaxed and smiling as they prepared for Ivory Coast.

Friday's loss clarified the need to become stronger mentally and physically, Kim said.

"It has laid the foundation for us to grow in the future. So this has been a very useful experience for us," he said. "Up until the last minute of the match, they really put in all their effort."

The team may have had the smallest cheering section at the World Cup - just a handful in a sea of Ivory Coast supporters, including a dancing fan in an elephant costume - but others lent their support to the underdogs.

And back home, North Koreans ate up the World Cup, rushing home from work to watch unprecedented prime time coverage of matches.

The game against Portugal was the first broadcast of a North Korea soccer game played abroad that was shown live back home, and the streets of Pyongyang were empty as people gathered around TV sets at homes and restaurants - a small but significant development in a country where media access is strictly controlled.

Friday's match was not aired live, though a taped broadcast of South Korea's game against Nigeria - which put the South through to the next round - was shown on state-run TV.

The World Cup wasn't the success hard-line regime had hoped for, but North Koreans rallied behind their boys.

"We're not discouraged," Kim Sang Chol, a coach for the professional soccer club Kigwancha, told TV news agency APTN in Pyongyang after the Portugal match. "The (North) Korean team is in the World Cup for the first time in 44 years. So in spite of losing the game, our team has made a good impression on football fans at home."

Kim Jong Hun denied they'd face any punishment back home for failing to advance to the second round.

"We were not able to go on to the next round, so both my staff and my players didn't meet the expectations of my countrymen," Kim said Thursday. "However, even though we didn't play too well, our people will welcome us with open arms."

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