When North Korea’s soccer team went to the World Cup in 1966, they became celebrities at home and heroes abroad. British director Dan Gordon made a film called The Game of Their Lives, which portrayed the players as virtuous patriots who defied their dictator. But they weren’t perfect. They missed practice sessions and played in the rain. A player who hit a referee was punished by beatings and bathing in raw sewage. The team had a lot of talent, but it was clear that their regime was not supportive of their professional ambitions.
This year, the North Koreans hoped to prove their worth by qualifying for the tournament. They won two games in Asian qualifiers and tied with Saudi Arabia and Iran. But they were trounced by Portugal 7-0, a result that some blame on orders from the regime’s leader to play an attacking style.
In response, the country’s sports minister reportedly summoned all the team members to a meeting with 400 government officials and students. They were subjected to a six-hour barrage of ideological criticism led by a TV commentator and the sports minister, according to Radio Free Asia and South Korean media reports. The players were also forced to criticize the coach, who may have been fired or sent to a labor camp.
The only two players who avoided the inquisition were Jong Tae-se and An Yong-hak, who flew to Japan immediately after their loss. They may have escaped punishment because of their foreign citizenship. But this incident demonstrates the potential perils of representing a dictatorship at professional sport. In other countries, athletes and coaches who let their nation down have been sentenced to prison camps.