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