Spirit of the Chollima

I wrote a piece for In Bed With Maradona about how North Korea won Asian Cup qualification, and hearts and minds, at the AFC Challenge Cup.

There is a mythical creature in Korean legend named the Chollima, which roughly translates as ‘thousand-mile horse’. It’s a winged beast – a Korean Pegasus – strong, swift and elegant. The Chollima is used as a symbol in North Korea to represent strength, heroism and fighting spirit. A 150-foot-tall statue of the Chollima stands over the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. And Chollima is the nickname of the North Korean football team. North Korea (some say DPR Korea) retained the AFC Challenge Cup tournament in Nepal this week, displaying many of the qualities associated with their mythical symbol.

This was international football played in reduced circumstances. The AFC Challenge Cup is ostensibly a tournament for emerging football nations, although several of the eight nations involved were relatively experienced. North Korea, who participated in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa (and famously at the 1966 World Cup in England), are categorised by the AFC as ‘developed’ rather than ‘emerging’. India, the Maldives, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are categorised as ‘developing’. The only truly ’emerging’ nations involved were Palestine, the Philippines and hosts Nepal. Both Palestine and the Philippines reached the semi finals, indicating how valuable participation in tournaments like this can be for lesser nations.

The tournament began with a group stage, with the top two teams from each of the two groups progressing to the semi finals. Turkmenistan and Palestine qualified ahead of the Maldives and Nepal in Group A, with Turkmenistan’s 21-year-old midfielder Arslanmyrat Amanov standing out as particularly impressive. Group B was dominated by North Korea, who scored eight goals and conceded none in three comfortable, if unspectacular, victories. Pak Nam-Chol, the excellent North Korean forward, scored in each of his side’s group stage matches. With a woeful India failing to trouble any opponent, the real battle was for second place, with the Philippines clinching it courtesy of a late winner in the final group stage match against Tajikistan.

The matches were played at two small stadiums in Kathmandu, both with cabbage patch pitches, in front of small but enthusiastic crowds. The early elimination of Nepal saw attendances tumble. More than 12,000 people watched Nepal’s opening group stage match against Palestine, but as few as 200 watched North Korea’s group stage match against India. A soundtrack to each match was provided by the constant clanging of Nepalese cymbals, providing an annoyance reminiscent of South Africa 2010’s vuvuzelas.

The first semi final saw Turkmenistan face the Philippines. The Azkals of the Philippines, coached by German Michael Weiss, were perhaps the most dynamic and entertaining team to watch throughout the tournament. Their squad included several British-born players, including Fulham reserve goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, and brothers James and Phil Younghusband, both of whom play for Loyola Meralco Sparks in Quezon. All three were impressive, particularly striker Phil Younghusband, who scored in each of his country’s matches – except for a 2-0 defeat to North Korea – and was awarded the tournament’s Golden Shoe as top scorer with six goals. However, in the semi final Younghusband’s early goal was cancelled out by two late Turkmenistan strikes, with Arslanmyrat Amanov scoring the first and creating the second to haul his team by the scruff of their necks into the final.

The fascinating North Korea vs Palestine semi final saw a notable change of approach from the North Koreans, inspired by the late arrival at the tournament of the striker Pak Kwang-Ryong. The six-foot-two 19-year-old had been on club duty with FC Basel (where he is a teammate, and friend, of the South Korean Park Joo-Ho). Pak Kwang-Ryong is the only North Korean to have played in the Champions League (including a brief appearance at Old Trafford this season) and, despite his young age, was the most high profile player in the squad. North Korea’s most famous footballer, the 28-year-old Japanese-born striker Jong Tae-Se (known as Chong Tese in Germany, where he plays for FC Koln), is no longer selected for the national team. Only three of the 26 AFC Challenge Cup squad members play their club football outside of North Korea, the others being national team captain Ri Kwang-Chon at Muangthong United in Thailand, and veteran midfielder An Yong-Hak at Kashiwa Reysol in Japan.

Where previous games had seen the North Korean players celebrate goals and victories with nothing more than a perfunctory handshake on the way back to halfway line, Pak Kwang-Ryong’s two goals in a 2-0 win over a feisty Palestine side were celebrated with arms in the air – and smiles. Pak Kwang-Ryong’s inclusion in the team alongside fellow 19-year-old Jong Il-Gwan up front also allowed Pak Nam-Chol move back from the forward line into a creative midfield position. This was to prove incredibly effective, as North Korea quickly evolved from a workmanlike unit into a much more attractive footballing team.

There were two Pak Nam-Chols in the North Korean team, the other being a robust defender. But it was the striker/midfielder Pak Nam-Chol who stood out above every other player in the tournament, and was eventually, deservedly, presented with an award as the tournament’s most valuable player. Pak Nam-Chol is 26 years old and plays for the 4.25 (April 25) football club, which belongs to the North Korean People’s Army. He is one of the few players to remain from his country’s disastrous 2010 World Cup appearance, and in Nepal his skill and vision were the key factors that helped elevate North Korea above the level of their opponents.

North Korean coach Yun Chong-Su also deserves mention, for successfully rejuvenating the national team following its failure to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, and for his delightfully straightforward press conferences. Ahead of the semi final, Yun Chong-Su said, ‘We have seen the matches of Palestine and have analysed their tactics and will implement our strategy accordingly.’ Ahead of the final, he said, ‘Turkmenistan is a good side and we have analysed their games and have prepared our tactics for the final accordingly.’

The final was a repeat of that of 2010, which North Korea won on penalties. This match was also decided by penalties, but there was no shoot out, with the decisive kicks coming just before the end of the 90 minutes. North Korea went behind to an early goal from Turkmenistan captain Berdi Shamuradov, but equalised when Pak Nam-Chol crossed for Jong Il-Gwang to score a brilliant header. The North Korean players ran to the touchline to celebrate like they had never before during the tournament, hugging and grinning in delight and relief. Chants of ‘Ko-re-a, Ko-re-a’ came from the crowd, which had been boosted to around 9,000 for the final, and cheering local fans held up small pieces of paper bearing the letters K-O-R-E-A.

The Chollima dominated the remainder of the game, but couldn’t create a second goal. Then, with just five minutes left to play, Turkmenistan’s Amanov was fouled in the penalty area. Shamuradov stepped up to take the penalty – but blasted his shot well over the crossbar. Incredibly, North Korea went straight up the field and won their own penalty, which substitute defender Jang Song-Hyok – who had conceded the earlier penalty – confidently smashed into the bottom left corner. He raced away, arms aloft, chased by his team-mates, and there were unusual scenes of celebration on the North Korean bench, too.

At the final whistle, the North Koreans leapt in the air, hugged and grinned. They waved to cheering fans in the crowd, and then – remarkably – picked up Yun Chong-Su and repeatedly bumped him up into the air in celebration. A group of Nepalese ball boys crowded around the smiling Pak Nam-Chol to have their photo taken with him, and a tournament official could be seen pushing his way through the celebrating players to grab an autograph from Pak Kwang-Ryong.

In winning the AFC Challenge Cup, North Korea won qualification to the 2015 Asian Cup tournament in Australia. But they also won the hearts of many of those who had watched them play in Nepal, just as their predecessors had in England in 1966. After the match, Yun Chong-Su said, ‘It was a great pleasure for us to get the support from the people of Nepal and I would like to thank them for supporting my players.’ Pak Nam-Chol added, ‘It was great for us to get the support we did from the Nepal fans. That meant a lot to us.’ North Korea also won the tournament’s Fair Play award – more credit to the spirit of the Chollima.

Then came the trophy presentation, and another remarkable moment of unusual contrast. As victorious captain Ri Kwang-Chon lifted the trophy, for a winning nation usually so detached from the rest of the world, in this fairly obscure football tournament, in a tiny stadium in Kathmandu, the tannoy system broadcast a song familiar to football fans from all corners of the world. And Ri Kwang-Chon smiled a broad smile, and waved the trophy back and forth in time to We Are The Champions by Queen.

Published by Paul Brown

Writes about football, history, true adventure. The Guardian, Four Four Two, When Saturday Comes, The Blizzard, Longreads, Deadspin, etc. Latest book: The Ruhleben Football Association. Twitter: @paulbrownUK