The People’s Favorites


World Cup 2010

When Brazil and North Korea kick off this afternoon, it will be a one-sided matchup of, perhaps, the two most fashionable teams in the tournament. Brazil’s Seleçao is the tournament’s most skilled team and, under head coach Dunga, might be also its most disciplined, but international supporters find themselves drawn to the squad less for its status as favorites than for its country’s exported image of an enviable Carnival culture—exuberant, indulgent, scintillating, sexy.

The Hermit Kingdom is a more improbable fan favorite—an unknown team from an unknowable country, “as secretive about its. . . training as about its weapons buildup,” as one newspaper put it. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the North Korean team is, on average, two inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts—a height difference mirrored in still-diverging national averages—and it’s hard not to read into that fact the horrific history of growth stunted by North Korean famines.

North Korea does boast one star—Jong Tae-Se, known as “the People’s Rooney,” a native Japanese who plays in that country’s J-League and who has never lived in North Korea. Off the field, he seems to have what counts as flair among his teammates—traveling with a PlayStation and an iPhone, declaring his desire to play in the English premiership—but in the lead up to the Cup he has also shown himself a model subject of the Kim dynasty, promising a Stakhanovite output of one-goal-per-game. He has also guaranteed that his team will advance over Brazil, Portugal, or the Ivory Coast—showing an even more deluded sense of national purpose. For this, he and his compatriots have been celebrated by just about every media outlet covering the cup—including, even, the normally gimlet-eyed New Republic, with their “Five Things You Don’t Know About North Korean Soccer.” An earlier version of the DPRK team was called “a squad of Charlie Chaplins,” and for the next ninety minutes, their great dictator won’t be the only one going crazy for these unfortunate tramps. The loyalties of imperious fans run impulsive and contrarian, and sport may be the only form of international relations in which irony can freely reign.