North Korea Trying for Unexpected in World Cup Again

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North Korea’s soccer team arrived Tuesday at the World Cup, where it will be supported by cheerleaders recruited from China, led by a forward born in Japan and prohibited at home from receiving free television coverage provided by fellow competitor and political rival South Korea.

There is much intrigue surrounding the mostly unknown team from North Korea. One of the world’s most closed nations will open slightly to participate in the world’s biggest sporting event, even as it is being accused by South Korea of sinking one of its warships in March and killing 46 sailors....

Unlike the former East Germany and Soviet Union, which intended athletic achievement as a sign of communist superiority, sports in North Korea serve to burnish nationalism and enhance the cult of personality of Kim Jong-il, said Michael Breen, a British journalist who lives in Seoul and has authored a biography of the leader....

If North Korea does stun the world, it will not be the first time. At the 1966 World Cup, its army-based team shocked Italy on a lone goal by Pak Do-ik, who later was called the Dentist for inflicting so much hurt on the favored Italians.

North Korea then blew a three-goal lead and lost, 5-3, to Portugal in the quarterfinals. Rumors spread that the Koreans had run out of gas after cavorting in Middlesbrough, England, where the Italian match was held, and were later killed or sent to re-education camps for their decadent behavior.

But a British filmmaker named Daniel Gordon found the truth to be otherwise in a 2002 documentary about that North Korean team called “The Game of Their Lives.” Players received decent apartments and increased rations for their startling upset, Gordon said in a telephone interview.

“It’s possible some prominent players got caught up in factional purges, but I’m not convinced it had to do with 1966,” said Gordon, who has been to North Korea more than 20 times. “As far as them going through bars and cavorting with women, there aren’t any half-Korean children running around Middlesbrough about age 40. That behavior didn’t happen.”

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