Foreigners get behind underdog ChollimaBEIJING - North Koreans will be prevented from travelling to South Africa next month to cheer on their World Cup team because of the reclusive and paranoid ways of their country’s leader, Kim Jong-Il.
But a growing number of international football fans are pledging their support to one of the competition’s underdogs, who take on powerhouses Brazil and Portugal, as well as Ivory Coast.
“The North Korea national team is not known for its travelling ‘Barmy Army’” - a group of English cricket fans who tour the world following the national team - “for obvious reasons,” says Simon Cockerell, a Beijing-based Briton who is spearheading the North Korea Football Supporters Association.
“We want to get as many people as possible to cheer on the Chollimas.”
So far Cockerell has mustered a 300-strong eclectic band of dedicated football fans from across the world to back Pyongyang’s finest. He has also set up a Facebook page.
When the squad left North Korea to prepare on May 9, they were sent off by their families, a military band and a select gathering of flag-waving officials, including Vice Premier Kwak Bom-Gi.
Nicknamed after the mythical winged Korean horse that symbolizes strength and speed, the Chollima are making their first showing in the World Cup since their legendary giant-killing performance 44 years ago.
In 1966 in Britain, they beat powerhouse Italy 1-0 to gain an historic quarterfinal berth, but even Cockerell admits they face a tough task this time, despite holding Greece to 2-2 in a friendly match on Tuesday.
“Not that you ever admit it in North Korea, but the team doesn’t really stand much chance of getting past the group stage. They play defensively and rarely score,” he said.
“They’re going to need all the outside support they can muster if they are going to even earn a point in Group G.”
Cockerell helps run the Beijing-based North Korea tour group Koryo Tours with partner Nick Bonner, who helped make the award-winning documentary “Games Of Their Lives,” which features the nine survivors of the 1966 squad.
Their office is adorned with colorful propaganda posters, North Korean football scarves - on sale for 80 yuan ($12) - and other North Korean football memorabilia.
“Nick is presently in North Korea with a tour group and trying to source a shipment of national football shirts. We have lots of requests from fans wanting to buy one,” Cockerell said.
The chances are slim for the team to win through and play their sworn enemy, South Korea, nor is there much hope of them squaring up to the United States - the one rival North Korea would love to beat, he says.
But when the Chollima face the likes of Brazil’s Kaka, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba, they can count on the loyal support of Bryan Clark.
Over the last four years, the 58-year-old Clark has travelled around the globe to watch North Korea play their World Cup qualifiers - even taking in games in Pyongyang during an organized tour.
“I was present when the Chollimas qualified for the World Cup following their draw with Saudi Arabia in Riyadh,” said Clark, who is British.
“I was the only North Korean fan in the crowd and was surrounded by 65,000 Saudi supporters as I waved my DPRK flag and cheered.
“I’ve got tickets for all their group games and I am dragging my wife, Pauline, along. I’ve converted her,” added Clark.
“I know the North Koreans are the ‘International Team of Mystery’ and underdogs. But they are strong and organized, and you underestimate them at your peril.”
Clark travels with a specially designed North Korean national flag, emblazoned with the name of his hometown, Portsmouth. He said he would display it with pride in South Africa.
“I’m not expecting any kind of special award from Kim Jong-Il for being a loyal travelling North Korean fan. I don’t think he is a fan. I have never seen him at a game,” Clark said.