North Korea youth development: International exposure the key

Han Kwang Song in action for Juventus U-23 Source: Transfermarkt

How are North Korea, the first Asian nation to make it past the FIFA World Cup group stage, taking great strides forward in their football youth development?

I was in the South African city of Nelspruit at the end of the Socceroos’ 2010 World Cup campaign, surprised at the animosity between man of the match Tim Cahill and the Australian press pack as he collected the MVP award for his performance against Serbia.

There was more goodwill towards Pim Verbeek as his time in charge ended. We caught up to discuss how South and North Korea were doing. DPR Korea were arriving in the same spot in this eastern city, just a bus ride from the Mozambique border, just two days later and I hung around to see them.

Unfortunately, they were already out of what was a really tough group. There was an impressive 2-1 loss against Brazil on a freezing opening night in Johannesburg that surprised the legions of Brazilian journalists that were predicting a 7-0 thrashing. That was actually the scoreline in the following game against Portugal.

The 3-0 defeat against Ivory Coast was also depressing and talking to the team’s foreign-based players Jong Tae Se and An Yong Hak after the game, they admitted that the team lacked international experience and exposure.

There were lurid headlines around the world of the team being packed off to a labour camp on its return back to East Asia.

What happened instead was the birth of a new determination to give more local players access to what is happening overseas.

North Korea has always produced talented players - this is, let’s not forget, the Asian nation that had the best World Cup record until South Korea went one better in 2002 and reached the semi-finals.

The way the country is governed makes it easier for children that show early promise to be sent to regional schools that are strong in football development.

Girls and boys play together until sometimes as late as 15, which helps to explain why DPRK has traditionally performed well in women’s football.

While sending CD-Roms of promising players to overseas agents had limited results, there was something concrete in 2013 as the Pyongyang International Football School opened.

With 20 all-weather pitches for 500 children aged 7-16, around half live in the facility, it was a huge step forward and bigger than South Korea’s National Football Center just on the other side of the border.

North Korea is still relatively isolated and cut off in a football sense when compared to its neighbour but invites international coaches to work in the school to expose students to what is going on around the world.

Now, those who represent their country at youth level are not just from the established clubs but also the international school.

In 2014, North Korea won the AFC U-16 Championship defeating South Korea in the final and arriving home from Thailand to a magnificent welcome with people lining the streets.

They reached the final of the U-19 tournament as well as the U-23 Asian Games where they lost to a last minute South Korean goal.

Of the starting eleven that won the 2014 title, six had experience in Europe. Defenders often went to youth teams in Italy and the more creative types went to Spain, in the hope that some tiki-taka magic would rub off.

A teenage Han Kwang Song impressed in Italy with Cagliari in Serie A and Perugia in Serie B, though it was something of a surprise when Juventus bought him after a loan spell for €3.5 million (A$5.9m) last year.

Just six days later the forward was sold to Qatari powerhouse Al Duhail for €5 million (A$8.4m) and he is set to be the national team’s main star for some time to come while showing the benefits of spending time overseas.

The boys reached the last four of the 2016 U-16 tournament and the quarters in 2018, good showings for the country but the U-19 Championships have been poor of late and there have been complaints of too many games being played by youngsters at home.

For North Korea however, the quest for international exposure is ongoing.