No h Korea launch plan to dom­i­nate the world – on the pitch

The Myanmar Times - - Sport -

UNDAUNTED by sanc­tions and hard re­al­i­ties on the pitch, North Korea’s lone foot­ball academy has set its sights high – aim­ing to pro­duce play­ers bet­ter than Lionel Messi, and teams that can dom­i­nate the world.

They are lofty goals for a coun­try whose men’s side is cur­rently ranked 126th, sand­wiched be­tween Ar­me­nia and Ethiopia and – more gallingly – way be­low re­gional ri­vals South Korea, Ja­pan and China.

But sport­ing suc­cess is a valu­able pro­pa­ganda tool and at Py­ongyang In­ter­na­tional Foot­ball School, which opened in 2013, coach Ri Yu-Il in­sists the sky’s the limit.

“We are train­ing our stu­dents to be­come su­per-tal­ented play­ers who can sur­pass the skills of peo­ple like Lionel Messi,” said Ri, re­fer­ring to the Barcelona su­per­star with four Bal­lon D’Or ti­tles to his name.

“For now, I think we should dom­i­nate Asia and, in the near fu­ture, I hope that we will achieve global dom­i­nance,” he added, dur­ing a tour of the train­ing fa­cil­ity.

North Korea’s finest hour was way back in 1966, when – with Ri’s fa­ther, Ri Chang-myung, in goal – they stunned mighty Italy 1-0 to reach the World Cup quar­ter-fi­nals.

It was an­other 44 years be­fore North Korea re­turned to the sport’s big­gest stage at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where they lost all three of their group games.

In the cir­cum­stances, pro­duc­ing play­ers of Messi’s stan­dard is a stretch but 200 live-in stu­dents aged from nine to 15 – 40 per­cent of them girls – are do­ing their best at the Py­ongyang academy.

Many of the train­ing drills are fa­mil­iar, but some ac­tiv­i­ties are un­usual – like the chil­dren’s tightly chore­ographed, for­ma­tion ball-skills set to mu­sic which form part of the academy’s pub­lic­ity ma­te­rial.

Struck by light­ning

When they’re not play­ing on the ar­ti­fi­cial pitches, the stu­dents take lessons in class­rooms adorned with pic­tures of North Korea’s late lead­ers.

De­spite the academy’s ef­forts, the men’s na­tional coach, Nor­we­gian-born Jorn An­der­sen, says they won’t be turn­ing out any global stars just yet.

“No, I don’t think they can make a Lionel Messi, but I think they can make good play­ers for Asia,” An­der­sen told AFP in an in­ter­view.

“There are many tal­ented play­ers ... but they al­ways have to stay in­side the coun­try. They can’t go out,” he added, stress­ing the need to ex­pe­ri­ence Euro­pean foot­ball, which is “bet­ter and harder”.

“When they are al­ways play­ing in­side [North Korea], it’s dif­fi­cult to cre­ate bet­ter play­ers,” said the for­mer striker, who signed a one-year con­tract in May.

North Korea have had their share of con­tro­ver­sies and they were barred from last year’s Women’s World Cup af­ter five play­ers failed drugs tests at the pre­vi­ous edi­tion in 2011.

The team doc­tor at the time blamed the test re­sults on a “Chi­nese rem­edy” made from musk deer glands to treat play­ers who had been struck by light­ning.

Last week, North Korea’s U16 goal­keeper Jang Paek-ho was fined and banned for a year for de­lib­er­ately let­ting in a goal kick from his Uzbek op­po­site num­ber, a com­i­cal in­ci­dent which went vi­ral on the in­ter­net.

One of North Korean foot­ball’s main ob­sta­cles is a lack of matches: Its clubs don’t play Asian Foot­ball Con­fed­er­a­tion tour­na­ments, and with just an 11-team league, do­mes­tic games are scant and draw crowds of only 200300 spec­ta­tors.

“My na­tional play­ers are with me but they don’t get match prac­tice. They are al­ways train­ing, train­ing, train­ing ... but they don’t play matches,” said An­der­sen.

No plan B

An­other ma­jor im­ped­i­ment is in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions im­posed on North Korea over its nu­clear weapons pro­gram, which has seen two nu­clear tests con­ducted this year.

In March, foot­ball’s Zurich-based world gov­ern­ing body FIFA said it was with­hold­ing around US$1.7 mil­lion ear­marked for North Korean foot­ball devel­op­ment projects be­cause of Swiss sanc­tions against the coun­try. And in May, the Ital­ian par­lia­ment raised ques­tions over a North Korean play­ing in the youth team of Serie A side Fiorentina – say­ing the Py­ongyang regime might be vi­o­lat­ing sanc­tions by skim­ming his wages.

The player left the side in July, ac­cord­ing to a club spokesper­son who ac­knowl­edged there had been “some bu­reau­cratic prob­lems”.

The Py­ongyang academy had ben­e­fited from ear­lier FIFA fund­ing, and Song Hye-yong, an of­fi­cial for the na­tional foot­ball as­so­ci­a­tion, ac­knowl­edged that it now faced some fi­nanc­ing prob­lems.

“Sanc­tions bring lots of dif­fi­cul­ties to our coun­try, in­clud­ing here,” Song said.

Com­pe­ti­tion to en­ter the academy is in­tense, and even those who make it are sub­jected to a ruth­less sys­tem of con­tin­ual as­sess­ment. A num­ber of stu­dents are sent home ev­ery year.

“It’s in­evitable that un­tal­ented play­ers are elim­i­nated,” said coach Ri.

The best have a shot at mak­ing the na­tional squad – the main route to gath­er­ing some in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence, al­though a hand­ful of North Kore­ans have been al­lowed to play for clubs abroad.

Al­though the prospects for the academy grad­u­ates are ex­tremely limited, most are so fix­ated on rep­re­sent­ing their coun­try that they ap­pear to have no plan B if things don’t work out.

“We came to suc­ceed in foot­ball no mat­ter what, so I have never thought about that,” said a 15-year-old mem­ber of coach Ri’s squad.

Pho­tos: AFP

Stu­dents stretch fol­low­ing an un­der-14 train­ing ses­sion at Py­ongyang In­ter­na­tional Foot­ball School in Py­ongyang.

Men’s coach Jorn An­der­son says global stars are a long shot, but he said he be­lieves the coun­try can de­velop play­ers com­pet­i­tive within the re­gion.

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