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South Africans warm to North Korean underdogs

By Gregory Mthembu-Salter in Cape Town
Posted on Monday, 21 June 2010 09:00

North Korea’s World Cup has been one of pantomime and choreography but South Africans will applaud if North Korea can get a good result against Portugal.

Day 11 of the tournament and disaster is looming for the African contingent. Ghana’s draw against Australia has kept their hopes of going through alive, but Cameroon are the first team to be knocked out, following their sad failure to convert any of their myriad of fabulous chances into goals against Denmark on Saturday afternoon. And Côte d’Ivoire were simply outclassed by a rampant Brazil at Soweto’s Soccer City on Sunday.

South America is clearly having a great World Cup so far. All their teams have performed and look set to go through. European teams, by contrast, have been poor to indifferent in the main, while Asia’s, though by no means spectacular, have certainly fared better then the host continent’s.

At lunchtime today the People’s Republic of (aka North) Korea, Asia’s weakest team, takes on Portugal at Green Point stadium in Cape Town. If North Korea loses, it is out of the cup, while Portugal would glide into the second round.

There is a small band of ‘fans’ following the North Koreans around, though it seems they aren’t actually fans. Most are Chinese soldiers, none of whom show any sign of knowing their companions, and who stared impassively during North Korea’s earlier defeat against Brazil, reacting only when gestured to do so by a man who directed them like a conductor throughout the match.

The local press has not established where the North Korean team and supporters have been staying in Cape Town, but the media was out in full force yesterday to witness a fake training session, apparently intended to scotch earlier rumours that four players had defected. The team took no questions though, and scurried off when the pantomime was over.

The North Koreans headed to Zimbabwe for their pre-World Cup training, but had to move their camp to Harare after plans to train in Bulawayo were scuppered by angry civil society groups who called the move a “symbolic insult”. In the 1980s North Korean soldiers had helped train the Zimbabwean army unit responsible for the Gukurahundi crackdown in Matabeleland and Midlands which killed at least 20,000 people. The North Koreans said the decision not to train in Bulawayo was purely a sporting one.

There is a large contingent of Portuguese fans here for the game, supplemented by Cape Town’s own Portuguese and – to an extent – Angolan communities, and in the stadium, Portuguese flags will outnumber North Korean ones by a huge margin.

Yet for all the North Koreans’ monumental lack of jazz, I detect a growing soft spot for them among South Africans, who generally back underdogs, and who were also impressed by the team’s exemplary refusal to collapse against Brazil. If North Korea get a good result today, it won’t just be their Dear Leader cheering himself through another bad hair day. Plenty of South Africans will be applauding too.