Robin Cowan reports on the gradual westward shift of North Korean talent.
As Europe's football superpowers imperiously carve up market share in the far east, Old Trafford seemed the ideal setting for September's epochal moment in Asian football. Though unlikely to effect share prices on the Singapore stock exchange, FC Basel's Pyongyang-born Pak Kwang-Ryong's late appearance in a UEFA Champions League group stage match was the clearest signal yet that North Korean football is edging itself into the mainstream. Difficult to overstate is the achievement for the DPRK of having a player represented at the top table of European football's most prestigious tournament. Pak Kwang-Ryong's ten minutes on the field in Manchester was a notable milestone for a journey that started just five years ago in the lower reaches of the Chinese second division.
In 2006, Kim Yong-Jun became the first ever North Korean to transfer to a foreign club, when he joined the Yanbian Baekdu Tigers, in China's second tier. Until then experience of outsider opposition for North Koreans were limited to internationals in the Asian Championship and World Cup qualifiers. Despite the tentative move to an allied nation just over the border, Kim's two years in China would have provided him with a range of experiences that few of his compatriots would have been able to conceive. The DPRK, sensing a realistic prospect of qualifying for a first World Cup in forty-four years, were prompted into a new openness, and a growing willingness to test new waters.
In keeping with the traditions of Soviet-era exports, the North Korean team that qualified for the 2010 World Cup were regarded as boxy and unfashionable. A curious anomaly amid their carefully marketed and intensely sponsored surroundings. Playing with a rugged simplicity, their main strength in qualifying was predictably a drilled organisation and discipline. While individual imagination and creativity were welcome imports via Japanese-born converts Jong Tae-Se and An Yong-Hak, instantly distinguishable by not having their hair cut by the state, brought a vital outside perspective to an otherwise extremely sheltered collective.
Having become possibly the most famous North Korean after the Dear Leader, Jong Tae-Se signed for VfL Bochum in Germany following the World Cup. With his portfolio of commercial endorsements and fondness for sports cars and inventive hairstyles, he certainly most resembles the opulent individualism of the modern European footballer. However, despite his relative freedom of movement and suitability to the lifestyle, Jong wasn't the first of his comrades to head west. Hong Yong-Jo was the first DPRK citizen to play club football in Europe when he joined Serbian SuperLiga side FK Bežanija in 2007. A year later he moved to Russia, singing for FC Rostov and joined compatriot Choi Myong-Ho who had also arrived in Russia in 2008, at the aptly named Krylia Sovetov (The Soviet Wings).
While Choi Myong-Ho struggled to settle into his adopted surroundings, Hong Yong-Jo spent three successful seasons with FC Rostov. Playing in the cosmopolitan Russian Premier League, facing opponents from Western Europe, Africa and South America. It was ideal preparation for Hong, who would go on to captain The Chollima at the World Cup finals. However, reports in the Russian press portrayed him as an isolated figure, notably separate from his teammates at Rostov. An account in the Russian newspaper, Sport-Express Daily, described both Hong and Choi as being constantly accompanied by party chaperones, who shared living quarters with the players and closely monitored and limited interactions with the press and with team-mates.
Hong has since been conscripted back to the Fatherland and re-signed for the military side, April 25, following the national injuries felt at the World Cup. With Choi Myong-Ho and Kim Yong-Jun having each returned to Pyongyang City. It could have appeared as though the DPRK were reigning in their foreign legion. Had it not been for a deal struck with a Swiss textiles merchant just prior to the World Cup.
Karl Messerli had been manufacturing textiles and other goods for the DPRK for over a decade and had himself played for FC Basel. Following the Under-16 and Under-19 sides both winning AFC championships in 2010, North Korea was beginning to attract renewed attention and credibility as force in Asian football. Messerli moved quickly to negotiate a deal with the DPRK Sports Ministry, The Swiss businessman's case being that the “incest football” of the isolated DPR Korea League was hugely limiting the national team's ambitions. Messerli managed to secure the European transfer rights for every player born north of the 38th Parallel, effectively establishing himself as a super-agent for an entire nation.
However, Swiss monopolising of North Korean footballers didn't begin with Messerli. In 2008, Concordia Basel, a club from Switzerland's fifth tier, signed their own exclusive transfer and marketing contact with the DPRK Sports Ministry. Concordia subsequently signed up youngsters, Pak Chol-Ryong and Kuk Jin-Kim, breaking further new ground as the first North Korean players to move to Western Europe. Messerli, apparently managing to supersede Concordia Basel, has since brought two more North Koreans to Switzerland. Cha Jong-Hyok signed for second division FC Wil and nineteen-year-old year old Pak Kwang-Ryong is now turning out in the Champions League.
With two North Koreans, Ri Myong-Jun and Jong Il-Ju since appearing together at FC Vestsjælland in Denmark's second tier, the first to arrive in the European Union, a vanguard of young North Korean talent is quietly assembling in more temperate corners of Europe. While highly rated teenager Jong Il-Gwan, the 2010 AFC Young Player of the Year, was recently touted in Sports Illustrated as a certainty to head oversees. Should Jong ever attract the attentions of Europe's elite, he could be the first native North Korean who's eventual freedom of movement could depend just on his ability as a footballer.
A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable for a North Korean to be able to face one of the world's wealthiest and most iconic football clubs on foreign territory. Pak Kwang-Ryong's now two appearances in the Champions League demonstrate the result of the DPRK's willingness to compromise and make meaningful departures in policy to improve national fortunes. If only when it comes to football. Ironically, market-forces that drive the current bloated European transfer market might prove the ideal conditions for a batch of players trading on a Socialist economic system, ideologically opposed to astronomical wages.
Follow Robin on Twitter @RobinCowan.