It is impossible to talk about football in North Korea without first dispelling a few myths about the country regarding football. North Korea did not claim that they won the World Cup. I was there; they watched the matches live, they were proud when they lost 2-1 to Brazil, and they were angry when they lost 7-0 to Portugal. Much like a normal country!
When they returned from the World Cup, the team did not get tortured. It really is that simple. Now to move onto the facts about North Korean football. Football is a big deal in North Korea, and not only are they quite good at it, but they’ve even qualified for the World Cup twice: in 1966, and 2010.
The 1966 World Cup might be best remembered (by the English anyway) as the only time England have won the World Cup, but North Korea are remembered as the revelation of the tournament: they initially lost to the Soviet Union, before drawing with Bulgaria, and then defeating Italy in one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history.
In the quarter-finals – and, again, in one of the most memorable matches in the history of the World Cup – they went 3-0 up against Eusebio’s Portugal before eventually losing 5-3. Most of their matches took place in Middlesborough, where the North Koreans retain a cult-like status.
Alas 2010 was a little bit different, with them narrowly losing 2-1 to Brazil before a 7-0 thumping by Portugal and finally a 3-0 loss to the Ivory Coast. Not the biggest of successes, but the country were proud nonetheless.
Domestically, football in North Korea is governed by the DPRK Football Association, or the KFA. The highest level of football in the country is the DPR Korea League followed by DPR Korea League 2 and the amateur DPR Korea League 3. Since 2017 the DPRK League 1 has been rebranded as the DPR Korea Premier Football League.
As is common in socialist countries all football clubs represent a different state enterprise/organisation, such as the army or navy, with the most popular and successful club being ‘April 25th’ who are one of two teams that represent the Korean People’s Army (KPA). The other army team, Sobaeksu, I actually met on the train into Pyongyang back in 2011, where they were returning from representing the DPRK at the King’s Cup in Thailand. Truly a memorable experience and probably worthy of its own blog!
The first year of the Premier League was won by April 25th, with Ryomyong coming in as runners up. As a result both teams will take part in the 2019 AFC Cup entering in the East Asia Zone qualifying round.
Can you watch a live football match in North Korea? The simple answer is yes! Join us at the DPRK football and microbreweries tour for that classic combination of booze and footie!.