United Kore­ans in Japan

The in­spi­ra­tional tale of a Korean team at the CONIFA World Cup

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - Words Chris Flana­gan Pho­tog­ra­phy Will Dou­glas

For­get Don­ald Trump and Kim Jong-un’s his­toric hand­shake, the quest to bro­ker last­ing peace be­tween North and South Korea has been kick-started by the United Kore­ans in Japan, and their at­tempt to win the CONIFA World Cup

It’s prob­a­bly the first time Four­fourtwo have been given pho­to­graphic di­rec­tion by a North Korean, but the big smile on An Yong-hak’s face is a wel­com­ing one. Eight years ago, he was in South Africa tak­ing on Robinho, Cris­tiano Ron­aldo and Dider Drogba at the 2010 World Cup. To­day, the 39-year-old is in Slough on a very dif­fer­ent mis­sion.

He is the player-man­ager of the United Kore­ans in Japan team at the 2018 CONIFA World Cup, a tour­na­ment cre­ated for mi­nori­ties and state­less re­gions across the globe. His side con­sists of both North and South Kore­ans play­ing to­gether in har­mony – de­spite the coun­tries tech­ni­cally re­main­ing at war – as they emerge from the tun­nel on this early June af­ter­noon.

It’s 27C as the sun beats down at Slough Town’s Ar­bour Park, while the play­ers pre­pare to start their warm-up for their third group game against Pan­jab, a Uk-based out­fit rep­re­sent­ing the Pun­jabi di­as­pora. Held in and around Lon­don, the 2018 CONIFA World Cup fea­tures 16 teams that in­clude Ti­bet, Tu­valu, North­ern Cyprus, a Mata­bele­land squad boast­ing 60-year-old goal­keeper Bruce Grobbe­laar, and hosts Barawa, who rep­re­sent the So­mali di­as­pora in Eng­land. They even got Right Said Fred to sing the of­fi­cial tour­na­ment song, which when you con­sider FIFA drafted in Fresh Prince of Bel Air star Will Smith for their com­pe­ti­tion’s ditty, doesn’t seem par­tic­u­larly out­dated.

The United Kore­ans in Japan were formed in un­likely cir­cum­stances, af­ter Ja­panese jour­nal­ist Mo­toko Jit­sukawa trav­elled to Swe­den in 2014 to cover the in­au­gu­ral CONIFA World Cup.

“I thought a United Kore­ans team would be re­ally suit­able for that tour­na­ment,” she tells Four­fourtwo. Jit­sukawa is now a part of the team’s del­e­ga­tion. More than 850,000 Kore­ans cur­rently live in Japan – a size­able num­ber as a re­sult of the Sec­ond World War, when Japan ruled Korea and moved many to the main­land as civil­ian labour. More moved to es­cape the Korean War years later. Kore­ans in Japan were known as Zainichi Kore­ans, and set up their own foot­ball club in 1961.

“GET SOME GOOD PIC­TURES, WE ARE HAND­SOME GUYS!”

Ini­tially the club had links to a pro-north Korean or­gan­i­sa­tion, al­though those links were sev­ered in 2002 when re­la­tions be­tween North Korea and Japan nose­dived, af­ter North Korea ad­mit­ted ab­duct­ing a num­ber of Ja­panese ci­ti­zens through­out the 1970s and ’80s. The foot­ball club, based in Tokyo and play­ing matches in Japan’s re­gional leagues, were re­named FC Korea.

“When I came back from Swe­den, I talked to FC Korea and the coach was in­ter­ested in the idea,” says Jit­sukawa. “United Kore­ans in Japan ap­plied for CONIFA mem­ber­ship and earned the right to par­tic­i­pate in the 2016 World Cup.”

Abk­hazia, a break­away re­gion in Ge­or­gia, was the venue for the last World Cup. Asked to choose an an­them, the play­ers opted for the one used by the uni­fied Korea in the early 20th cen­tury. “That was one of the most emo­tional times for me,” she says. “I’m not Zainichi Korean, I’m Ja­panese, but when I heard the an­them be­fore the first match in Abk­hazia, I was on the verge of tears.

“There is dis­crim­i­na­tion against Kore­ans in Japan. Chil­dren can’t go to Ja­panese schools. In Tokyo there can be hate speech in the street, peo­ple say­ing, ‘Kill them!’ or ‘Get out of Japan!’ Four years ago there was a very sad in­ci­dent at Urawa Red Di­a­monds, the big­gest foot­ball club in Japan. At the sta­dium, some of the fans put a sign up say­ing, ‘Ja­panese only’. It was aimed at all of the Zainichi Korean play­ers and I was so an­gry about it.”

When United Kore­ans in Japan qual­i­fied for this sum­mer’s CONIFA World Cup – thanks to a 9-0 thrash­ing of Ryukyu, a group of Ja­panese is­lands – a de­ci­sion was taken to in­vite An Yong-hak to be the team’s am­bas­sador. Born and raised in Japan, be­fore col­lect­ing 37 caps for North Korea and even play­ing club foot­ball in South Korea for a spell, he was seen as the per­fect man for the job. Not only did he agree to be an am­bas­sador, he soon took on the role of man­ag­ing the team – and even vol­un­teered to come out of re­tire­ment and play.

“North Korea, South Korea and Japan are very im­por­tant to me,” he tells FFT. “I re­gard all of them as my mother­land. I was im­pressed by the spirit of CONIFA – it is a bridge be­tween dif­fer­ent peo­ple all over the world. That’s why I wanted to join this team, and I’m very proud that I’m able to say I’ve played at both the FIFA World Cup and the CONIFA World Cup.”

In­deed, he’s the first per­son to have played in both ver­sions of the World Cup. “They’re very dif­fer­ent!” he laughs. This time his team are stay­ing in stu­dent ac­com­mo­da­tion in Colin­dale, north Lon­don, paid for by CONIFA. Just find­ing the spon­sor­ship money to fly the squad in from Japan was a chal­lenge. “The level of foot­ball is not the same in this com­pe­ti­tion but the mo­ti­va­tion to do well is no dif­fer­ent,” he adds. “Both tour­na­ments are im­por­tant to me.”

Yong-hak started all three games at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, when North Korea were placed in a daunt­ing group with Brazil, Por­tu­gal and Ivory Coast. North Korea were stuffed 7-0 by Por­tu­gal and beaten 3-0 by Ivory Coast, but cred­itably only lost 2-1 to five-time win­ners Brazil in their opener. De­spite three straight de­feats, the ex­pe­ri­ence is one Yong-hak will never for­get. “It was amaz­ing!” he ex­claims. “Since my child­hood, I watched videos of the World Cup and dreamed of be­ing there some day. My dream came true.”

As we ask the next ques­tion, we won­der whether the con­ver­sa­tion is about to get slightly awk­ward. Those re­ports about the 2010 squad and coach­ing staff be­ing pun­ished af­ter re­turn­ing to North Korea with zero points: were they true?

Un­ex­pect­edly, he re­sponds by burst­ing into laugh­ter. “I have been asked about this at least 300 times. In the news­pa­pers I’ve seen that the play­ers or the coaches were sent to the mine to do very hard work. But it’s not true, and the goal­keeper who con­ceded the seven goals against Por­tu­gal is still the goal­keeper of the na­tional team to­day. If he’d worked in the mine, his hands cer­tainly wouldn’t be in the right state to play in goal any more! It’s a ru­mour and ev­ery­one asks about it, but it’s not true. Ev­ery­body thinks North Korea is an aw­ful coun­try, but the re­al­ity is very dif­fer­ent. Please visit Pyongyang one day and see it with your own eyes.”

North Korea’s record on the foot­ball field has rarely matched that of South Korea, but the pas­sion for the game re­mains strong – even from the coun­try’s leader. “Kim Jong-un is a great lover of foot­ball,” in­sists Yong-hak. “He has strength­ened North Korean foot­ball.”

The United Kore­ans in Japan re­lied heav­ily on play­ers from FC Korea at the 2016 CONIFA World Cup. So when Yong-hak be­came man­ager, he im­me­di­ately started phon­ing other tal­ented Zainichi Kore­ans he knew and in­vited them to join his squad. “We said yes,” smiles team cap­tain Son Min-cheol. “I can still re­mem­ber watch­ing him play at the 2010 World Cup – Zainichi Kore­ans were re­ally ex­cited to see him play against teams like Brazil and Por­tu­gal. He’s a leg­end of Korea, so when he called me, I had to go and play for him.”

Min-cheol plays for Lee Man FC in the Hong Kong Pre­mier League but grew up in Ky­oto, Japan. “My grand­fa­ther was born in Korea and he moved dur­ing the Sec­ond World War,” says the cen­tre-back. “I played for North Korea Un­der-23s and joined the train­ing camp for the se­nior team too, but un­for­tu­nately I didn’t play. I lost a huge op­por­tu­nity but never got down about it. That ex­pe­ri­ence gave me en­ergy.”

He used that en­ergy to en­sure suc­cess in club foot­ball in In­dia and Thai­land, al­though his trav­els re­quired him to swap his North Korean pass­port for a South Korean one.

“I wanted to get ex­pe­ri­ence and see the world, but if I had kept my North Korean pass­port it would have been dif­fi­cult to move,” he says.

“NORTH KOREA, SOUTH KOREA AND JAPAN ARE SO IM­POR­TANT TO ME. THEY’RE ALL MY MOTHER­LAND. CONIFA IS A BRIDGE BE­TWEEN DIF­FER­ENT PEO­PLE ALL OVER THE WORLD”

“I dis­cussed it with my mother and told her I wanted to change from a North Korean pass­port to a South Korean pass­port, and she agreed. I changed two years ago, but it’s not a big dif­fer­ence – it’s just a card. I’m a Ja­panese-born North Korean.”

While the man­ager and the cap­tain of the United Kore­ans in Japan team iden­tify them­selves as North Korean, the ma­jor­ity of the squad have South Korean pass­ports – al­though in many cases, their fam­i­lies ac­tu­ally left Korea while it was still one coun­try, not two.

Min-cheol hopes that it will re­turn to be­ing one coun­try in the fu­ture. Re­cent talks, in­clud­ing meet­ings be­tween Kim Jong-un and the South Korean pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in, have given him op­ti­mism. “When they shook hands at the bor­der line of North Korea and South Korea, it was a beau­ti­ful mo­ment, amaz­ing,” he says. “I saw that and felt so much con­fi­dence that we can be one coun­try again. I hope it will hap­pen – we’ve been di­vided for many years.”

Yong-hak con­curs. “In the near fu­ture, we be­lieve we will be united. We all hope for peace, not a di­vide.”

Now 31 and near­ing the end of his play­ing ca­reer, Min-cheol is asked about his am­bi­tions. We ex­pect an an­swer about foot­ball, but that’s not what we get. “Peo­ple have told me I should get mar­ried!” he says, prompt­ing a swift in­ter­ven­tion from his boss. “Dif­fi­cult, very dif­fi­cult, dream don’t come true!” smiles Yong-hak in bro­ken English, spark­ing fits of laugh­ter be­tween the pair be­fore Min-cheol con­tin­ues on a more se­ri­ous note. “But I re­ally want to help the young play­ers in this team,” he says. “Eighty per cent of our play­ers are un­der the age of 25. Both An and my­self want to help them.”

Among those young play­ers are 20-year-old de­fender Kang Yoo-jun, a South Korean cur­rently play­ing for Mon­roe Mus­tangs in the USA, and 19-year-old Lee Tong-soung, who moved to Eng­land ear­lier this year. He starts a de­gree at Lough­bor­ough Univer­sity in Septem­ber, hav­ing re­cently been on the books of non-league side Staines Town.

“Un­for­tu­nately I got in­jured so I couldn’t play a lot, but I came here to study abroad and also play some foot­ball,” Tong-soung tells FFT. “An Yong-hak called and in­vited me to this com­pe­ti­tion. I re­spect him so I was very happy – also be­cause my older brother is in the squad too, and I’d never played with him be­fore. I’d like to be a pro­fes­sional foot­baller. I’m al­ready 19, so I might have to think about an­other way, but this tour­na­ment is a big chance for me.”

Sev­eral play­ers from to­day’s op­po­nents, Pan­jab, earned tri­als with Notts County af­ter reach­ing the fi­nal of the 2016 CONIFA World Cup. As both squads be­gin their warm-up, spec­ta­tors have al­ready started drift­ing through the turn­stiles at the 2,000-ca­pac­ity Ar­bour Park, some stop­ping at the makeshift mer­chan­dise stall sell­ing CONIFA T-shirts from a rack. The crowd will reach around 500 by kick-off, pretty much fill­ing the main stand, and the ma­jor­ity are cheer­ing on Pan­jab, whose squad fea­tures play­ers al­most ex­clu­sively from Eng­land’s non-league sys­tem. How­ever, a num­ber of cu­ri­ous lo­cals are also ven­tur­ing in to see what this tour­na­ment is all about.

The PA sys­tem isn’t quite on a par with the FIFA World Cup. Ran­dom screech­ing noises from the speak­ers are in­ter­spersed with the of­fi­cial an­nounce­ment of the line-ups. “Please be aware that there might be a few pro­noun­ci­a­tion [sic] is­sues, but we’ll do our best,” says the guy be­hind the mic. “We’ll give you the line-ups again be­fore the na­tional an­thems, for those of you who, er, aren’t here, ba­si­cally…”

The United Kore­ans in Japan head back into the dress­ing room for the team talk, which prompts an en­thu­si­as­tic roar from the play­ers, then a hud­dle. Their first two group games – against Western Ar­me­nia and lit­tle-fan­cied Al­ge­rian side Kabylia – had ended 0-0, so their task to­day is straight­for­ward. Win and they progress to the quar­ter-fi­nals, any­thing less and they are out – con­signed to third place in the group be­hind Western Ar­me­nia and Pan­jab.

Such is the tight sched­ule of the tour­na­ment that this is their third match in just four days. If that was al­ready go­ing to be a tough ask for 39-year-old player-boss Yong-hak, he is ruled out of the crunch clash af­ter in­jur­ing his arm the pre­vi­ous day against Kabylia. Is it bro­ken, we ask him? “Maybe,” he says, promis­ing that he’ll go to hos­pi­tal to have it checked out later that evening.

The teams are soon out on the pitch for the na­tional an­thems, played tin­nily over the sta­dium speak­ers. The tur­ban-wear­ing chair­man of the Pan­jab FA, Harpreet Singh, is a lone voice in the main stand – belt­ing out the Pan­jab an­them loudly and proudly. A man rushes down to the front of the stand parad­ing a North Korean flag when it’s time for the United Kore­ans in Japan an­them, which cuts out half­way through due to in­ter­fer­ence over the PA sys­tem. Un­sure what’s go­ing on, some of the crowd laugh, while oth­ers ap­plaud think­ing the an­them is fin­ished. But the mu­sic soon comes back on and ev­ery­one re­turns to stand­ing solemnly for an­other 30 sec­onds.

FFT grab a word with the owner of the North Korean flag. “What’s your an­gle?” he asks war­ily at first. We ex­plain we’re only here to write about the team he’s cheer­ing on. “Ah OK, it’s just that I’m a bit pissed,” ad­mits John Bon­field, a Spurs fan who’s spent the last hour at the bar. “I’m sim­ply some­one who went to North Korea a cou­ple of years ago, had a great time there, met some re­ally nice peo­ple and thought I’d come down and sup­port them to­day. I do a lot of trav­el­ling to some weird places, like Nagorno-karabakh, who played in a pre­vi­ous CONIFA World Cup. I some­times go to ran­dom matches too, like the Bos­nian fifth di­vi­sion. When I heard that this World Cup was in Lon­don, I was al­ways in­ter­ested in com­ing.

“The amus­ing thing was we ar­rived early to­day and some­one with the United Kore­ans in Japan team dragged me into the dress­ing room and they gave me a round of ap­plause for my T-shirt, which has the sym­bol of North Korea on it. I brought out my North Korean flag af­ter that and they went men­tal, they ab­so­lutely loved it. The man­ager even took me to meet his mother. They asked me what my favourite thing about North Korea was – I said the beer!”

“I GOT DRAGGED INTO THE UNITED KORE­ANS’ DRESS­ING ROOM AND THEY GAVE ME A ROUND OF AP­PLAUSE FOR MY T-SHIRT – THEN THE MAN­AGER TOOK ME TO MEET HIS MOTHER!”

Chas­ing vic­tory, the United Kore­ans in Japan don’t start the game too well: within 75 sec­onds, they con­cede a penalty. Pan­jab’s Gur­jit Singh, a for­ward with Mid­lands out­fit Rushall Olympic, de­cides this is a per­fect time to at­tempt a Pa­nenka. He’s wrong. Goal­keeper Shim Woo-dae dives but still has time to flick a leg into the air and keep out the chipped spot-kick, much to Singh’s em­bar­rass­ment. The score re­mains 0-0. With an ice pack on his arm and un­able to play for the first time in this tour­na­ment, man­ager Yong-hak spends the first half shout­ing in­struc­tions non-stop at the top of his voice. Op­po­site num­ber Reuben Hazell, the for­mer Tran­mere, Ch­ester­field and Old­ham de­fender who’s agreed to lend his ex­pe­ri­ence to help Pan­jab, is a lit­tle qui­eter. A drum­mer is or­ches­trat­ing Pan­jab’s fans, be­fore an ice cream van turns up and parks close to the pitch, hop­ing for trade. It isn’t like this at the FIFA World Cup. The PA sys­tem soon screeches back into life. “This is a mes­sage for the owner of a sil­ver Mercedes: you’ve left your win­dows open.” Both sides start to tire in their sec­ond match in as many days. In an event that of­ten pro­duces goals ga­lore, United Kore­ans are on course for a third suc­ces­sive stale­mate un­til Isle of Man ref­eree David Murphy awards Pan­jab a sec­ond penalty with 13 min­utes re­main­ing. This time West Auck­land Town for­ward Amar Pure­wal steps up to take it.

His strike in the 2016 CONIFA World Cup Fi­nal earned him head­lines as the first Bri­ton to score in a se­nior World Cup fi­nal since Ge­off Hurst, and he makes no mis­take to put Pan­jab 1-0 up. The United Kore­ans now need two late goals to qual­ify.

It looks like they’re ex­it­ing the com­pe­ti­tion with­out scor­ing a sin­gle goal, un­til the 95th minute, when Mun Su-hyeon swivels out­side the box and thun­ders the ball into the top cor­ner from 20 yards. Spurs fan John cel­e­brates wildly with his North Korea flag and Yong-hak races onto the pitch, tem­po­rar­ily for­get­ting his in­jured arm to hug the scorer.

“UKJ! UKJ!” can be heard in the main stand – some of the lo­cals are join­ing in for the hell of it, in­clud­ing one who’d been chant­ing “Pan­jab! Pan­jab!” min­utes ear­lier. With in­jury time still not over, there’s brief hope that the United Kore­ans can get the sec­ond goal they need, to the ag­i­ta­tion of Pan­jab fans. “Come on ref, you’re hav­ing a laugh! Are you play­ing an­other half? Blow your whis­tle!” one yells from the back of the stand. Soon the ref­eree does just that, to the dev­as­ta­tion of the United Kore­ans. Some sit dis­con­so­lately and oth­ers burst into tears, all while the chimes of the ice cream van go off in the back­ground.

It’s clear the heart­bro­ken play­ers aren’t in the mood for a Cor­netto as they re­turn the ap­plause of a sym­pa­thetic crowd. Their hopes of World Cup glory may be over, but they still have three games to play as part of the place­ment rounds for the teams elim­i­nated in the group stage.

“We’re dis­ap­pointed, but I’m proud of the play­ers,” says Yong-hak. “They never gave up. It’s a suc­cess for us just to be here and they will gain so much ex­pe­ri­ence – they’re the fu­ture of the Zainichi Kore­ans.”

Cap­tain Min-cheol agrees. “Some play­ers are cry­ing but I’ve said they have to re­mem­ber to­day. We showed the world our fight­ing spirit.”

As much as the United Kore­ans in Japan dreamed of win­ning the World Cup, their par­tic­i­pa­tion was about much more than just re­sults. It was about giv­ing a com­mu­nity a voice, about the to­geth­er­ness of two na­tions at war, and most of all about hope.

Whether Korea will be uni­fied again, only time will tell. But this team has proved that if there’s a will, po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences can be over­come. That in pur­suit of a com­mon goal, North and South Kore­ans are able to work along­side each other in har­mony.

On the foot­ball field at least, they are al­ready united.

Be­low and left Kim Sun-ji gets to grips with United Kore­ans team-mate Choi Gwang-yeon; the tac­tics board proves a headache for poor Byun Yeong-jang Above left Son Min-cheol pre­pares to lead the team out at Slough; ex-staines man Lee Tong-soung is all...

Right Hong Yun-guk gets a cross in against Pan­jab, but de­spite the con­stant urg­ings of their man­ager An Yong-hak (be­low right) and some ea­ger sup­port in the stands, the United Kore­ans couldn’t progress

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