Is North Korea's World Cup team any good?

As World Cup fever heats up around the world, there's huge interest in the tournament's biggest underdog: North Korea, which debuts against soccer juggernaut Brazil on June 15 in its first cup appearance since a Cinderella showing in 1966.

Kim Jong Il's squad, ranked 105th internationally, just barely qualified for the big show, and oddsmakers figure its chances of winning are about 1,000 to one.

Little is known about the players. There's Kim Myong Won, a striker known as "the Chariot" for his speed. But Kim will be restricted to playing goalkeeper due to a North Korean attempt to skirt FIFA rules. There's also Jong Tae-se, a stocky forward who was born and lives in Japan, where he is known as "the People's Wayne Rooney" for his resemblance to the English star. Jong scored both North Korean goals during a recent match against Greece, which ended in a 2-2 tie, and has vowed to score once in every World Cup game. The team's captain is Hong Yong Jo, who plays for FC Rostov in Russia.

The North Korean team has been cloistered since arriving in South Africa earlier this week. But one source of great speculation has been cleared up: The players will be wearing uniforms made by Legea, an Italian sportswear company that paid a reported $4.9 million for the privilege:

North Korea’s team is getting an amount similar to what might be paid to a low-ranking team in the English Premier League, the world’s richest soccer league, according to Simon Chadwick, a sports business professor at the U.K.’s Coventry University. Ri, in an interview in Tokyo last week, said it was hard to find a jersey sponsor as there’s “no market” for sports apparel in North Korea.

“If it doesn’t result in sales, there’s no point” for some sporting-goods companies, Ri said.

Legea will provide North Korea with branded World Cup jerseys and training gear, Nastro said. That will help raise the Italian brand’s international profile, although the marketing bet could backfire, Chadwick said.

Legea “will be working overtime to put clear blue water between the team and the regime,” Chadwick said. “It could get to the stage when people stop buying the brand if they’re being seen as propping up a dictatorship.”

Ya think?

As part of the deal, North Korea will get a 10 million-euro bonus if the team wins the cup.


Does Israel want a democratic Middle East?

Helene Cooper has an interesting take on the Gaza boat affair in this weekend's Times, but I think she goes astray here:

Some foreign policy experts say the new willingness to suggest that the Israeli government’s actions may become an American national security liability marks a backlash against the Bush-era neoconservative agenda, which posited that America and Israel were fighting together to promote democracy in an unstable region.

Some American neoconservatives may have thought this, but few Israelis did. With the notable exception of former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, leading Israelis generally scoffed at the notion that the United States would succeed in promoting democracy in the Arab world -- and to some extent, the record vindicates their skepticism.

I'd divide the thinking into two main camps: those who thought Arab states couldn't become real democracies, whether for cultural or socioeconomic reasons, and those who recognized that free and fair elections in the Arab world would likely see Islamist groups with deep antipathy toward Israel come to power. The second group saw its fears realized in 2005 and 2006, when elections in Egypt and the Palestinian territories saw the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas make big gains  at the polls. One could also point to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the AK Party in Turkey, and Nuri al-Maliki's coalition in Iraq as examples of Islamist groups of various stripes benefitting from democracy.

Even Sharansky wasn't necessarily a genuine advocate of democracy in the Arab world. Some would say, given his hard-line positions on settlements and peace negotiations, that his real aim was to add a new condition -- democratic governance -- to the long list of things the Palestinians must achieve to be considered a viable partner for peace.

As for the flotilla incident, Turkey's reaction to it will likely only strengthen the conviction in Israel that it's much easier to deal with autocrats like Jordan's King Abdullah and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak than it is with elected governments. After all, you don't hear either of those two guys threatening to break off relations with Israel, and Mubarak has been awfully silent about his own role in enforcing the Gaza blockade.