The crowd in Pyongyang’s soccer stadium roared as a North Korean player sprinted toward the Tajikistan net on a clear breakaway opportunity. But he gave up the open shot and at the last second passed the ball to a trailing teammate, only to watch the defense smother it yet again.
The North Korean soccer team was playing in a 2014 World Cup qualifying match against Tajikistan. Despite the home team controlling the ball in front of the visitor’s net almost the entire game, they only managed to eke out a 1-0 victory. There were so many opportunities for players to score a goal but at the last second they would veer off and kick it to a teammate. It was like watching a high school basketball team made up of five point guards with no one willing to take a shot.
In the regimented society in which the players live there is no reward for taking the initiative, for standing out among their peers. From an early age they are taught to conform to the rigid rules of their Communist regime. However, this conformity leads to a lack of spontaneity which was reflected in the North Korean team’s performance.
We were in the North Korean capital as part of a year-long around-the-world journey. This closed society was on our itinerary because we were curious to witness firsthand the last outpost of the Cold War. What we hadn’t expected was for the totalitarian nature of the country to be revealed at a sporting event.
On a sunny afternoon Yanggakdo Stadium was almost full with a mix of civilians and Army soldiers clad in their dark green uniforms. We were allowed to take pictures of the action on the field but pictures towards the stands or of North Koreans were strictly forbidden. Oddly, there was a cameraman stationed in front of our section of about fifty Westerners. He had his back turned to the field and spent the entire game videotaping us. We found out later that our presence was a big story on the state-run media.
The fans were quiet compared to international soccer crowds but grew loud whenever it appeared the home team was about to score, which was quite often. But then the player who seemed to have a breakaway shot would follow the by now familiar pattern—pull up to pass it to a teammate—and the roar of the crowd would subside.
Our section of Westerners started a wave, the 1980s standby of American ballparks. The North Korean crowd hadn’t seen this before but after a few fits and starts they caught on. With each attempt the wave cascaded farther around the stadium as each section jumped to its feet with arms swinging wildly in the air, eliciting a loud uproar from the crowd. But we could never get the wave to complete a full circuit. When it finally reached the central seating area set aside for Party VIPs not a fanny left its seat. The wave didn’t just ebb there but was stopped cold, like it broke against an unyielding stone jetty.
The Party elders sat there stoically, ignoring the crowd generated action. They are among the few people in the country who have access to international news. They know full well what crowds have accomplished lately in places like Egypt, Libya and Tunisia and they would have none of that here.
We made one more attempt at a wave but it was a feeble one. The masses got the point and stayed seated. Any further displays of spontaneity or creativity by the people would be frowned upon, as they are every other day in North Korea. So we sat down to watch the rest of the game; as one North Korean player after another would gain possession of the ball in front of the goalie, only to pass it away at the last moment.
The North Korean team had surprised the soccer world by qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. However, their performance in South Africa was a poor one; they lost all three games, including a 7-0 drubbing by Portugal. When they returned to North Korea they were publicly shamed at a lecture hall by party leaders for humiliating the country and its leader, Kim Jong Il. The coach was reportedly accused of betrayal.
With that background it’s no wonder any player would avoid making a risky move in a game. In this game the net looked just as elusive as the freedom that could be theirs only 100 miles down the road in South Korea. The players’ lives were already ensnared in the steel net of their authoritarian society, maybe for this one game at least, they’d let the ball remain free.
Click on the link for more about our visit to North Korea.