Stirred by North Korea’s inviolable defiance, which strangled the silken game of Brazil and irritated them no less in the first half, a pleased neutral shouts: “Their leader shows them the way.”
The enclosure echoes with chuckles, before came the response: “But in the end they will bow down to Brazil, just like their leader to Trump one day.”
The quip though wasn’t met with much fervour. Whether a political discourse took over is unsure — there’s every possibility that there would have been one and could have extended deep into the night — but the incident perfectly mirrored the public impression of North Korea. It’s their politics that concerns most than the brand of football they play.
The other day, during their fixture against Niger, they were vociferously cheered by a group of self-proclaimed “Kimians”, as the supporters of North Korean politics are known here (and it’s not a random group of 10-20 people). They came in masks of Kim Jong Un with the ‘Dear Leader’s’ picture superimposed on a plastic banner. Beside his head ran the words, which when translated read: “Thank you. Continue the fight against capitalism and capitalists. Let more missiles be launched.”
Maybe, North Korea’s football was so shoddy that it might have dulled their enthusiasm and they didn’t bother turning up on Tuesday. The soul of their game was forthright defence — not a polished version of the defensive game that the Italians profess, but a more cynical, at times rugged defensive game. So much so that at times it cast an impression that the game was being played on only half the pitch. Apart from Brazilian goalkeeper Gabriel Brazao, the rest were all camped in North Korea’s half, the Brazilian trident of Lincoln, Paulinho and Brennner launching wave after wave of attacks, but unable to ruffle the nets.
North Korea’s was a brand of unexciting, bland football which the purists would scoff at. But there still was a prosaic beauty about their game, of their unflinching spirit to put everything on the line to deny the Brazilians. Their opponents unleashed their full bag of tricks, deft back-heels, slalom runs and fancy step-overs. But the little Koreans clung on, frustrating the Brazilians and vexing the yellow half of the stadium.
As the evening wore on, they had won a few hearts too, as chants of “DPR, DPR” reverberated across the stands, mostly by a youngish crowd, with no references to the leader. Admirable was the coordination of their defence. They adeptly cut down the space on both flanks, and forced the Brazilians to attack more centrally.
When they did so, they were easily crowded out. And when their defenders failed, their goalkeeper Sin Tae Song stood up. He lunged to his left and defanged a brutal volley by Lincoln as early as the second minute. Likewise, he snuffed net-bound attempts by Paulinho and Antonio. Suddenly, with Brazil unable to breach Sin, their ultra-defensive strategy seemed wholesomely vindicated.
It’s a strategy their coach Kim Yong Su swears by. “Out strategy is to defend, defend and defend. We believe that the best way to attack is to defend. If we don’t concede goals, we can frustrate teams and induce mistakes,” he asserts.
Hence, though they primarily played a 4-4-2 formation, it permuted at times to 5-3-2, with three centre-backs being screened by a defensive midfield pairing. At their dour best, they formed an impregnable wall. At least defensively, they outran the nimble-footed Brazilians and dived around unabashedly, effecting last-minute intersections and sliding tackles.
The flip side to such a system is that it takes just a setback to dishevel their trusted defensive tactic, or as Brazil coach Carlos Amadeu put it, “alternative football”. As in alternative rock, no longer fashionable as it was in the 80s.
It was simply a matter of time before Korea unravelled, precisely the matter of a goal. It was unfortunate that the first goal was more fluke than ingenuity. It stemmed from a free kick just outside the box, which ricocheted of the boot of a Korean player and bounced off the surface. Lincoln was well positioned to head the ball home. Though Sin was rushing to fist the ball away, defender Kim Kyong Sok intervened and blinded the keeper, as the Brazilian nodded it home while ‘keeper’s palms crashed into his teammate’s head.
Sin was livid, for he knew the recovery road was strewn with potholes from thereon, even as Sok writhed in pain on the ground.
Now, they couldn’t afford to just park the bus, but tweak the formation, push more men forward and take calculated risks, which made them prone to swift counter-attacks. They conceded the second soon after, before perhaps they played the most exciting football of the tournament, and on at least three instances came to pulling one back, if not restoring parity.
Kim Jung Chin’s swerving free kick was palmed by the ‘keeper while Kim Hwi Hwang spurned a gilt-edged opportunity inside the box. Chin, then, blasted one over the goalkeeper, and the crowd, began to sing, “like a missile.”
But at least, the Chollima — the team’s nickname after a mythical winged horse that cannot be mounted by a mortal and serves as a symbol of North Korea’s revolutionary spirit — flapped and fluttered. A comeback, though, was the stuff of dreams.
Soon after the referee whistled and the players stumbled onto the ground in sheer exhaustion. But a visibly upset North Korean coach gave them a heated dressing down right there. “You can say we played well and fought hard, but the scoreline reads 2-0. There’s no excuse for that. The reality is that we lost,” he said. As an afterthought, he adds: “We’re a proud nation and we won’t sulk.” This attitude defines North Korea, its politics as well as its football.