Now Reading
World Cup: Cheering for the ultimate underdog

From the archive: This story is more than 10 years old.

World Cup: Cheering for the ultimate underdog

  • North Korea and Portugal line up before their World Cup match.
    Jason Bagley/FlickrNorth Korea and Portugal line up before their World Cup match.
  • Ronaldo takes on five members of the North Korean team.
    Jason Bagley/FlickrRonaldo takes on five members of the North Korean team.
  • Ronaldo takes a shot.
    Jason Bagley/FlickrRonaldo takes a shot.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — The crowd at Arnold's Restaurant in Cape Town leapt to its feet and cheered as a soccer ball slammed into the back of the net.

But it was not fan-favorite Brazil they were cheering for; it was the North Korean team. They were cheering for a virtually unknown team (and nation) that is the lowest-ranked in the 2010 World Cup (105th) while Brazil is ranked number one.

Brazil's earlier two goals were met with appreciative nods and clapping by spectators. But North Korea, scoring in the last few minutes of the Tuesday game with an epic shot by Ji Yun-Nam, caused an uproar. People jumped to their feet and pumped their fists to celebrate the ultimate underdog holding its own in the face of the world's soccer elite.

But the North Korean team is not only an underdog, a nation not expected to have much success in the World Cup; it is also representative of one of the most oppressive regimes in the world. The country's leader, Kim Jong-il, reportedly created a national regulation banning men from growing their hair long after he was dissatisfied with the way some players wore their hair during a soccer game he watched.

A victory for the team is a victory for the country, and above all a victory for its "Dear Leader." Few people outside the borders really know what goes on inside, but aid agencies have estimated that since the mid-1990s as many as two million people may have died from food shortages. Reports of public executions, torture, slave labor and atrocities in massive prison camps have trickled out of the country.

Few native North Korean fans have come to this World Cup, as most are not allowed to leave the country and wouldn't have the financial means to travel to South Africa anyway. Some Chinese have come for the games and are supporting the North Korean team, but the unknown side previously had few foreign fans. At this World Cup, however, North Korea has become an underdog favorite.

North Korea is one of the world's most mysterious places, and the team follows suit. The players were all virtually unknown before the Cup started, and up to the kickoff no one even knew what their uniforms would look like, or who had designed them.

The secrecy surrounding the team and country can be intoxicating, and rank doesn't tell us everything. During the 1966 World Cup (the only other Cup North Korea has played in), they beat soccer titan Italy to reach the knockout stage, achieving one of the most famous World Cup upsets of all time.

If the Cup is Christmas to soccer fans, then North Korea was the misshapen present, handed with a wink, that made no noise when shaken; sure to be interesting, no matter what it turned out to be.

The North Korea-Portugal match last Monday got off to a promising start.

Although it was a rainy, foggy, generally miserable day, a small crowd of people had gathered at Rafikis, a Rastafarian-inspired sports bar in Cape Town.

A waitress wistfully watched the North Korean team line up before the game. I waited; sure she was going to say something poignant about the struggling country or the hopeful team.

"Korea must kick their ass. It would be so funny if Ronaldo lost to them," she said instead, before walking back inside.

And maybe that is part of the North Korean supporters' sentiment, too: that the world's best soccer teams, and best players, have gotten a little too big for their britches. Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, with his playboy lifestyle, is certainly one of the best examples.

Jackie Tizora, a 17-year-old fan from Cape Town, admitted at half time that while she was hoping for a win for the Portugal team, she was impressed with what the North Koreans had accomplished as a team

"The fact that they're here and they're giving Portugal a run for their money, I think that's really cool," Tizora said.

A few minutes into the match my friend Mike looked at me in surprise. "I think they think they can actually win," he said.

Alas, North Korea lost seven to nothing, and the players who had been so disciplined and cohesive during the match with Brazil were no match for the Portuguese. At half time, the score was one-nil. North Korea fought back bravely in the second half, but Portugal was dominant.

By the end of the 90-minute game, the score was seven-nil, virtually securing Portugal a spot in the knockout stage.

Before the seventh goal was scored, another waiter shook his head at me sadly. "Six–zero is too much. Too much cold blood," he said. 

On June 25, the team lost 3-0 to African powerhouse Ivory Coast, signaling the end of its World Cup aspirations, and quite possibly the end of its unlikely fan base — at least until the next World Cup.

Maybe the support for North Korea comes from somewhere deeper than the desire to put Ronaldo in his place or cheering for the worst-ranked team that was cruelly placed in a brutal group with Brazil, Portugal and African powerhouse Ivory Coast. Maybe the fan backing comes from somewhere even more profound than feeling drawn to the mystery-laden country and their obscure team.

Maybe it comes from fans taking note of a team without a local fan base, a team that is from a country with a long-suffering populace. Maybe they saw a team that was playing with their hearts, still desperately seeking a goal even as they knew they had no chance.

But maybe, just maybe, we all just wish the North Korean people finally had something to celebrate. 

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

— 30 —

Best in Internet Exploder