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Destination: South Africa
Posted by Jayaditya Gupta on 06/20/2010

Jong Tae-Se speaks Portuguese... apparently. © Getty Images

It says something about resilience that, in an age when information is on tap and no corner of the world - and little of the space above and below - is left to be uncovered, North Korea remains an enigma.

They came into this tournament with only a little more known about their football than in 1966 - enough, though, for someone in FIFA to suss out that one of the keepers was actually a striker.
But it’s the sort of cover that is impossible to penetrate, even in the high-profile, full-glare world of a World Cup. When I last checked there were no North Korean journalists accredited for this game who could help shed some light on the country and its football.

And so, in the absence of any information, rumour and myth proliferate. One Italian reporter said he saw them practice, up north, in an open field with people and “birds” criss-crossing the field. A Japanese reporter said three members of the team speak English - and Jong Tae-Se, the “people’s Rooney”, speaks Portuguese too. Does he? I wouldn’t suppose we’ll get close enough to him to find out.

Their practice session was a chance to see whether they were any different to any of the other teams. Not really, though there were some signs. First, they wore a relatively obscure brand of clothing - Legea, their suppliers, also kit out the national teams of Iran, Albania and Zimbabwe.

Second, the sprinkling of reporters watching the practice was - officially at least - devoid of any from home. Most unusual, given that even Mauritius has a photographer assigned to this tournament. Third, their practice - the bit we were allowed to see - was a bit of sprinting on the sidelines and some group exercises behind the posts. Forget about any five-a-side games that might reveal tactics, there wasn’t even any of the cheerful keepy-uppy or larking about one sees at almost every practice session. It was strictly business as usual.

At the press conference that followed, the coach, Kim Jong-Hun, smiled only once (though it could have been a grimace), when asked about the four players who “disappeared”. Perhaps he had other things on his mind, things that delayed his arrival at the press conference by more than 20 minutes.

Once again, there was no question asked in Korean (this part easily verifiable) and, indeed, very little asked about the team and its formation. My question about the fans went unasked because the press conference itself was curtailed with indecent haste.

It was an unusual day that began in an unusual way. Shortly after noon, journalists were asked to evacuate the media centre - the announcement was sotto voce and almost relaxed so it was clear it wasn’t a bomb (or at least not a very dangerous one).

We were allowed back in after ten-odd minutes - time well spent soaking up the brilliant sunshine - and it later transpired that one of the guard dogs on duty had sniffed something and gone a bit mental. It’s the first such instance I’ve seen in reporting three World Cups and hopefully the last.

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