SEOUL (Reuters) - On the few occasions reclusive North Korea makes its way before the world, it is usually facing sanctions for rattling regional security and not cheers in packed soccer stadiums.
The hermit North is set for a rare moment in the global spotlight as its team are back in the World Cup finals for the first time since their only appearance 44 years ago, perhaps hoping for another run as magical as the 1966 one that earned the pariah state a bit of sympathy and support.
While the North has the chance to win fans and change minds in the outside world about its rogue status with what it does on the pitch in South Africa, analysts said the World Cup appearance would do little to change the ways of Pyongyang.
The impoverished North relishes playing the role of David where its global sporting victories are attributed to the teachings of its pudgy leader Kim Jong-il and failures blamed on the Goliaths of the world trying to stifle its “Dear Leader.”
Its state media said of qualifying for the finals: “(The) stirring events prove once again that the experienced and tested leadership of General Secretary Kim Jong-il and his great patriotic devotion are the source of all victories, miracles and inexhaustible strength.”
Unlike most of the Soviet satellites formed in the Cold War, North Korea has not used victories on the playing field to validate what they argued was a superior political system.
Instead, the North uses sport to inspire its masses, treats its victorious athletes as heroes and reminds those who compete overseas that their families, friends and associates at home will be punished if they step out of line or defect.
North Korea, which hardly ever allows its people or officials to speak abroad, will be required to have its players and coaches appear for news conferences in South Africa. In qualifying matches, the group have been reticent about the sport, respectful of opponents and tight-lipped on politics.
A few of the North’s biggest names play abroad in professional leagues in Japan, South Korea and Russia and have a much better understanding of the global game than the 1966 team did.
Soccer is the biggest sport in the country and the North makes exceptions about banning broadcasts from the capitalist world by showing matches from Europe and Latin America on its state television.
“The news broadcasts would tell us a soccer match would be shown later. They were all videotaped but we had no idea of the results because that information was not available to us,” said a 19-year-old man who recently defected to the South and asked not to be named to protect his relatives left in the North.
Broadcasts of the matches have become a political football between North and South Korea. South Korea usually acquires rights to the matches for the peninsula and has in the past picked up the tab for broadcasts in the North as a humanitarian gesture. This time around, it plans to charge Pyongyang after its neighbor appears to have ratcheted up political tension.
Feeling between the rivals turned even worse after the South suspected the North of being behind a deadly attack on one of its warships in March.
Pyongyang has not yet said if it will pay the money sought by the South’s broadcaster, which is likely to be around $135,000.
Even though the public could put up with depravation and poverty, they would not stand to be in the dark on football, experts and defectors said, which put pressure on leader Kim.
“They love the game. International TV comes on Sundays. The streets are quiet at the best of times but they are even quieter when the football comes on,” said Nick Bonner who helped to produce the documentary on the 1966 North Korean soccer team called “The Game of Their Lives.”
That team pulled off one of the greatest World Cup upsets with a victory over Italy that helped them to qualify for the knockout stage while earning the North Koreans an enthusiastic following that put aside politics to cheer them on.
“When you have the rest of the world not on your side, you have even more to show. The lads in ‘66 had an enormous impact,” Bonner said.
The North Koreans are going to South Africa as one of the longest shots, with a team who are still a mystery and a relentless style of play devoid of theatrics.
“They are going to be bounced around on that pitch but everyone supports the underdog. I think you can split politics from sport here,” Bonner said.
Editing by Clare Fallon
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