Football behind the curtain — the mysterious world of the game's most secretive national team (2024)

When Thomas Gerstner arrived in the lobby of a Munich hotel in 2016, the German football coach had a feeling that his life was about to take a bizarre turn.

As he sat in a low armchair, nervously inspecting the faces and outfits of every stranger who walked through the revolving door, he thought about the WhatsApp message he'd received a few weeks earlier.

Jørn Andersen, a friend and colleague, had reached out to Gerstnerwith a peculiar question.

Could he ever imagine coaching the North Korean women's national team?

Gerstner was stunned.

He didn't know very much about North Korea, but what he did know concerned him. It was one of the most secluded and secretive countries on earth, ledby an infamous dictator who regularly tested missiles, held enormous public military parades, shut down all forms of dissent and opposition, and ruled his people with an iron fist.

And his friend wanted to invite him behind the curtain.

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Gerstner hadn't coached at a high level for a number of years, and never outside of Europe. But he was always interested in experiences that would challenge and change him, both as a coach and as a person.

So after mulling it over for a few weeks, he agreed to meet with representatives from North Korea's Sports Ministry to discuss the role. That's how he ended up sitting in the lobby of this Munich hotel in September, waiting for whatever future was about to open up ahead of him.

"It was a very good conversation," Gerstner tells ABC Sport.

"And after about two and a half hours, I received an offer and time to think about it.

"I felt good: the way you feel with a pleasant conversation partner, and an offer that was hard to refuse."

For a football coach who hadn't had a major gig in five years, the offer certainly was difficult to ignore: a highly-paid national team position, the ability to choose his staff, a large hotel room entirely paid for. He was even promised his own guide and a private driver.

Gerstner, throwing caution to the wind, said yes. He was given six months to prepare to leave his home in Germany for what he described in a Swedish newspaper as "the greatest adventure of my life".

"At first, everything seemed surreal," he says.

"I got an interpreter, a chauffeur, a large suite with a study, was accommodated in a hotel with five restaurants and a wellness area.

"The style of my suite was very old-fashioned and took some getting used to, but I quickly got used to the new surroundings and conditions.

"At the beginning, I had countless conversations with possible assistant trainers, analysts, physiotherapists and doctors.

"All the people in my work environment were very friendly, nice and accommodating. Everyone always tried to fulfil my demands and wishes. There were no private contacts, and people there were forbidden to make friends with foreigners.

"Maintaining contact with people from the DPRK is impossible anyway because they have no access to the internet and cannot communicate outside. Their cell-phones only have intranet SIM cards; they can communicate with each other, but not with foreigners at home or abroad."

Gerstner arrived in May 2017, and was tasked with coaching the North Korean under-20s women's national team.

He joined at a crucial time: North Korea had just won the U17 and U20 FIFA Women's World Cups the previous year, and that new generation of players was now preparing to step up into the senior side.

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He was brought in to help them on their way. But first, he was tasked with trying to win the U-20 Women's Asian Cup, which would allow them to defend their World Cup title in France the following year.

And he had just five months to prepare. Five months to learn all he could about how North Korean women footballers were developed.

He'd seen their records at international level — the incredible success of their youth teams, juxtaposed with the slow slide of the senior team over the past decade — but had little idea of how the women's game actually worked behind the curtain of the country.

How do they identify players? Where do they train? Are there domestic competitions? What is the support like for players on and off the field?

And who makes all the decisions anyway?

Football behind the curtain

Football in North Korea is not how it looks in the rest of the world.

There are two separate streams for players in the country: the domestic leagues and the national teams.

Domestically, club football is run by the DPRK Football Association, with the highest division consisting of around 13 teams who play against each other in condensed, round-robin style tournaments held every two months across the year.

All clubs in the DPRK represent different state enterprises or organisations, such as tram factories or government departments or the military, which have both men's and women's teams.

The most popular and successful club is 4.25 Soccer Club: a reference to April 25th, the day that North Korea's army was founded in 1978. The oldest club in the country is Amrokkang Sports Club, the international security team that was founded in 1947, making it older than North Korea itself.

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But information about these domestic leagues and who plays in them is scarce. Results are not published, there are no advertisem*nts for their games (there are no advertisem*nts for anything in North Korea), matches are not televised, and there are no public records of team lists or officials or crowd numbers.

It's unknown whether players are full-time athletes, or if football is simply an activity they participate in on the side of their other work.

Some of the clubs' best players are supposedly given special treatment, such as nicer apartments and extra food rations, but what their everyday lives are like remains a mystery.

According to Gerstner, the national teams operate differently.

"All players from the various national teams are in the National Training Centre (NTC) 24/7 and do not play for clubs after they've been selected," Gerstner says.

"They are trained six days a week in the NTC. There's no payment for this; there is no payment as far as we know it for anyone in the country.

"They're accommodated in the NTC, receive full meals, and are simply proud to represent their country. They are taught there every day and enjoy being privileged.

"There is no community support for football. During international matches, people from the military and universities are ordered to go to their national team's games.

"This means that one of the largest stadiums in the world [the May Day Stadium, with a capacity of 150,000 people] is filled with around 50% uniformed soldiers and 50% students.

"In the DPRK, no one decides whether he or she will play football; that is decided elsewhere. Every person who has a special talent for something receives maximum support in this area, whether it's piano lessons or horse riding or soccer training."

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Decided by whom? Gerstner doesn't say.

But his comment points to the more shadowy aspects of North Korean football, which is where much of the external intrigue lies.

By almost any metric, the DPRK is viewed as one of the most oppressive political regimes in the world. It regularly ranks at the bottom of lists regarding press freedom, while individual liberties are heavily restricted.

Public opposition to the regime can lead to punishments such as torture, forced labour, and imprisonment. Allegiance to the one-party leadership is paramount. According to the United Nations, North Korea is a state "that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world".

As such, very few foreigners have been granted access inside the DPRK to observe the way football operates domestically. And even when they have, their experiences have been completely controlled by what the state wants them to see.

In 2008,Austrian film-maker Brigitte Weich was allowed into the country to produce a documentary called "Hana, Dul, Sed": a film thatfollowed four women's national team players through their football careers and into what was implied as forced retirement after they failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics.

"I'd never seen anything like Pyongyang before," Weich wrote on the film's website.

"It is impossible to move about freely in the city: the moment you arrive at the airport, you are met by a guide who, except when you are at your hotel, never leaves your side until you are back on the plane heading home.

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"Like every North Korean, your guide wears a lapel badge bearing the image of either Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il, and every second sentence she or he utters is in praise of the 'Great Leader,' who is responsible for all the wonderful things you are being shown during your visit.

"This experience came as a complete shock and made me wonder how things had come to be the way they were there, and alternately how they had ended up the way they were 'back home.'

"I am often asked whether it wasn't terribly restrictive to shoot a film in a totalitarian Big Brother regime.

"But to me, the restrictions were already part of the story: we didn't want to show how we saw North Korea, we wanted to see what these women would show us."

Since the country's founding in 1948, the DPRK has gone to extreme lengths to control its projected image to the rest of the world.

'Candy-coloured mirage'

Anecdotes from foreign tourists, athletes, and journalists recount how micro-managed their experiences are, with their entire trip feeling like a stage-play, like something not quite real.

In Pyongyang, the capital, the streets and buildings and parks are impossibly clean. Enormous posters depicting the Kim family are hung from bridges and lamp-posts, traffic is quiet and sparse, and public crowds are minimal.

The dirt and scars of a lived-in country are swept beneath the facade of this impeccable place, with poor and rural populations kept out of sight. Contact between the inside and the outside world is heavily controlled.

Jerome Champagne, a former FIFA official, recalled that there was just one way to communicate with the entire DPRK association during his time with the governing body.

"There was one fax number," he says in an interview.

"You sent a fax. Sometimes you got a reply."

These days, there is supposedly a single email address.

You're never guaranteed a response.

North Korea shows you only what it wants you to see.

More than a game

Football has been one of North Korea's most visible — and most vulnerable — doorways to the outside world.

The country's founding leader, Kim Il Sung, regularly emphasised the importance of sport and physical fitness as a projection of the nation's self-image on the global stage.

"We should popularise physical culture and sport, make them part of our everyday life, and thus improve the physical fitness of the entire nation," he once told the Sixth Congress of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea in 1980.

"We should also rapidly develop our sporting science and skill."

Football's role as a pillar of North Korean strength and character was captured in an internally-produced 1978 film titled "Centre Forward," which tells the story of a young male footballer who embarks on a Rocky-esque journey to work hard and improve his fitness and skill in order to represent the senior team.

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"Communist countries want to gain a high level of appreciation outside of their countries through sport, and especially football," Gerstner says.

This love of the game appears to run in the family, with the country's current leader, Kim Jong Un, regularly attending football matches at home. He is supposedly a big Manchester United fan, and has in the past ordered the state broadcaster to show the club's matches on public television: a rarity in the tightly-controlled media landscape of North Korea.

The first serious glimpse that the world got of North Korean football was back in 1966, when the men's national team — nicknamed"Cheollima", the name of a mythical horse that can cover 400km in a single day and cannot be mounted by a mortal human — qualified for the FIFA World Cup finals in England.

Their remarkable run, which was later documented in a film titled "The Game of Their Lives,"included a famous 1-0 win over Italy in one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history.

That win, which followed a draw against Chile, saw them become the first Asian team to reach the quarter-finals of the tournament.

They lost the next game to Portugal 5-3, but the few surviving players from that side have been hailed as heroes in North Korea (and, oddly enough, in Middlesbrough, where they were based during the World Cup) ever since.

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As part of this bigger vision of using sport as a geopolitical tool, and keeping with Kim Il Sung's plan to rapidly improve their sporting prospects, North Korea has heavily invested in facilities and infrastructure to give its athletes the best possible chance to dominate on the world stage.

This investment has been particularly effective in the women's game, with North Korean teams dominating the youth levels and Asian competitions over the past two decades.

The Taesong District Juvenile Sports School in the capital Pyongyang is one of the most famous training bases. It has had its own women's football program since 1999, working closely with the Academy of Sports Science to monitor players over multiple age groups and design training programs to maximise their physical abilities.

The school holds 'exams' of a sort, testing thousands of fledgling footballers to assess their suitability for international competition. Football is part of the curriculum, with theory and physical training built into a child's everyday study. Schools regularly compete against each other in tournaments across the provinces.

Some of the players who won the DPRK's first ever World Cup — the U-20 Women's World Cup in 2006 — were apparently developed at the Taesong training base, and were awarded the titles of "Labour Hero" and "Peoples' Sportsperson" upon their return.

Indeed, North Korea appears to have been ahead of the curve in building gender equality into its football development structures.

In a 2019 visit to the DPRK, journalist James Montague observed that female players were given the same facilities, opportunities, coaching, and equipment as male players, and were already far more advanced at junior level.

Since 2012, the genders have supposedly been mixed together "to help the boys improve", according to one of the interviewed coaches.

So popular is women's football in North Korea that KCT even once developed its own mini-series in 2011titled "Our Women's Soccer Team", whichshowed a fictionalised group of national team players navigating modern-day North Korea and inspiring young people with their football skills.

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As a result, North Korea has been a surprising force on the continental stage since the 1990s.

They broke China's stranglehold on the Women's Asian Cup when they won their first title in 2001, and then won it twice more in 2003 and 2008. They've won the Asian Games three times, too, as well as finishing runners-up three times more, including in the most recent edition last year.

On the global stage, they've participated in the Women's World Cup four times — twice as many as their men's team — including progressing to the knock-outs back in 2007. They've also been to two Olympic Games, in 2008 and 2012, but have failed to make it past the group stage.

Despite that, North Korea has been a mainstay in the FIFA top ten rankings for over a decade. They were only de-listed last year after a long period of inactivity brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. They returned to the rankings in late 2023 and currently sit ninth, three places above the Matildas.

It's a curious ranking given North Korea has not participated in a major international tournament since their last Olympics in 2012. When contacted for comment, FIFA said the 'inactivity' period had been extended from 18 to 48 months during the pandemic, in line with the men's side. But they did not elaborate on why the DPRK had maintained its top 10 ranking despite no major competitions in the past ten years.

Ranking mysteries aside, rumours have been swirling for decades that North Korean players are provided with more than just coaching, nutrition, facilities and equipment that have made them so competitive.

During the 2011 Women's World Cup in Germany, five senior North Korean players failed doping tests. The federation was fined $400,000 and banned from qualifying for the 2015 World Cup in Canada.

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The official explanation given by the DPRK was that their players had been struck by lightning and treated with a traditional medicine made from deer musk glands, which contributed to false-positive drug test results.

In fact, so unusual was this substance that it had never before been detected by anti-doping technology anywhere in world sport, so it was not part of any regulations. FIFA banned the country anyway, but the International Olympic Committee did not, allowing the DPRK to participate in the 2012 London Olympics.

And the team who missed out on qualifying for the Games that year due to North Korea's involvement? Australia.

Indeed, the Matildas have a long, tense history against the DPRK. They've met several times in international competition, most notably in the final of the 2010 Women's Asian Cup, where Australia won on penalties.

On the rare occasions that North Korea have travelled to Australia to play, controversy has followed. In 2006, at the Women's Asian Cup hosted in Adelaide, DPRK officials requested that their page in the tournament's official guide be ripped out of every single copy and destroyed.

A week later, in the final minutes of a semi-final between North Korea and China, an equalising goal for the DPRK was called offside by the referee. When the full-time whistle signalled a 1-0 win to China, the furious North Korean goalkeeper shoved the referee and earned a straight red card. Her team-mates then chased the referee and her assistants, throwing bottles of water at them as they ran, before police had to intervene and escort the officials off the field for their own safety.

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It's not known what happened to those players, nor the ones who were found to have doped at the 2011 World Cup once they returned to the DPRK, but it is widely believed that punishment for athletes who fail or embarrass the state on the global stage can be severe.

For example, after the men's national team were bundled out of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa — losing 7-0 to Portugal in a rare live sports broadcast that was shown across the country — North Korean leaders reportedly carried out six hours of public humiliations of the players in front of over 400 government officials, while their head coach was banished to a building site.

An investigation by FIFAcleared DPRK of the allegations later that year. But the shadow of the curtain still lingers.

Football beyond the curtain

This was the strange, secretive world that Gerstner became familiar with during his time with the U20 women's national team as they prepared for the 2017 Asian Cup in China.

Just as football gives the world a glimpse inside North Korea, the game also gives North Koreans a glimpse of the world.

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But such glimpses can be risky, and the country's leaders put as many protocols in place as they can to ensure that a glimpse doesn't turn into something more.

"The players were very shy at first," he says.

"And they had been approved by the association, so they knew exactly how they had to behave towards me according to the instructions.

"Day by day, they became looser and funnier, whispered and laughed and visibly blossomed.

"However, direct communication was never possible because everything went through Mrs Hwang, my interpreter.

"After about three months, I invited the whole team to dinner at my hotel, in the revolving restaurant high above the city. They saw Pyongyang from above for the first time; I will never forget those surprised but happy faces.

"The players on my team were happier than many young people in Western countries are. They don't miss anything, and are grateful for everything and have great respect."

North Korean national teams hardly ever travel beyond their borders, so when they do, there are strict rules in place.

Coaches and players are rarely, if ever, interviewed by foreign media, and don't appear in public media conferences unless required to by competition organisers.

In shared hotels, North Korean players and staff stick together, ignoring those from other countries, knowing that they're likely being monitored by their own government's officials at all times. They sometimes reserve entire floors or wings for themselves to ensure they don't interact with anyone else.

Gerstner was informed of all these rules before he set off with his team to China in October of 2017.

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"Of course, I was concerned that one or more of the players might disappear during our trip and not return to DPRK," he says.

"But I was reassured that this would not happen and that I was not responsible for it.

"We travelled to Nanjing with almost 30 players and as many staff members and officials to play in the Asian Cup and qualify for the 2018 U20 World Cup in France. To do this, we had to finish at least third.

"The players were very excited, but also proud that they would experience something that only a few people in DPRK get to experience.

"I suggested visiting a Chinese market on a non-game day. At first, those responsible were surprised, but with the argument of variety and reward, we actually all went to the Chinese market.

"The players each received $10 and were allowed to buy something to remember [the trip] by, and of course everyone knew that this was my idea.

"Everyone performed really well. Unfortunately, we lost the final to Japan 0-1, but we qualified for the World Cup by reaching the final. But in countries like DPRK, the second-place is the first loser-place. They all expected to be champions."

That expectation is now starting to create problems within North Korean football. While their insularity has given them some advantages on the sporting stage in the past — being able to train and play in secret, and giving their players as many resources as possible to develop from a young age — that same isolation is now holding them back.

As global football evolves, especially on the women's side, the DPRK is falling further behind technically and tactically, with new ideas and systems and strategies not making their way inside the country until months, or even years, later.

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Players, too, have been disadvantaged by this insularity. Until recently, very few North Koreans — especially those who were born in the country — were ever allowed to play club football abroad.

But the association is now recognising that the game is accelerating away from them, so has begun to slowly creak open their door, with a handful of men's national team players now permitted to play club football elsewhere.

The national teams' experimentation with foreign coaches such as Gerstner, as well as his WhatsApp friend Anderson, who coached the men's senior team at the time, has been another attempt to introduce global ideas to their local football programs, especially at senior level where physicality is no longer the sole determinant of success.

But as they slowly open themselves up to the football world, North Korea risks loosening its white-knuckle grip on its own image and its own people, especially those who become more exposed to life beyond the curtain.

The country is therefore caught between these two places: wanting to continue challenging on the international sporting stage, but not wanting to step too far outside of itself and potentially shatter the image it has spent decades building.

What will this mean for the future of the North Korean game?

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Gerstner doesn't know. And he hasn't hung around to find out. The German resigned from his role in 2018 to take up a role back home, though he still keeps an eye on the women's national teams from afar.

He watched with pride as the players he coached defeated Mexico and Brazil to reach the quarter-final of the 2018 Women's World Cup.

Some of them have since made the jump to the senior team, which went on to win the Cyprus Women's Cup in 2019, poetically defeating Italy in the final.

But then the pandemic shut them down. Three long, silent years passed, with North Korea withdrawing from all competitions and cancelling all games. Nobody spoke to or heard from anyone inside the federation during this time. The single email address never responded.

It's not known what happened to the players in the meantime: how they trained, played, or prepared for their return back to international sport. All we know is that they did something, because they came back with a bang, finishing with a silver medal at least year's Asian Games despite lasting almost an entire World Cup cycle with no global competition.

And this week could be the biggest opportunity yet for North Korea to test the limits of their interiority as their women's team faces Japan in a two-legged qualifying play-off for the Paris Olympics.

If they win, they'll make their first Games since that controversial 2012 tournament in London: the year that saw their women's national team begin its slow slide before falling totally out of sight.

But if they lose, they'll return to North Korea and face whatever consequences await. And the curtain will be drawn back across them once again.

Football behind the curtain — the mysterious world of the game's most secretive national team (2024)
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