Why I Love North Korea

I received a text this morning from my friend Josh Dean that read, “Oh man, u like all the unlikable teams.” Josh had just learned that I was rooting for Portugal. Yesterday he discovered (firsthand in an Italian-American bar) that I support Italy. Like many American fans, Josh doesn’t like Portugal because he thinks they’re divers, and he doesn’t like Italy because he thinks they’re brutes. What I didn’t tell Josh, which might have really gotten his goat, is that part of me was rooting for another unlikable team today, North Korea, as they played the team everyone loves to love, Brazil.

One pleasure of the World Cup is indulging in somewhat random allegiances. Four years ago I loved Ecuador because of a shirt someone gave me; I’ve supported Paraguay because of my first experience of coffee; I like Portugal just because I’ve been there. Then there are the old stereotypes that can help you cheer: The Italians are all defense, the Argentines are cheaters, the Germans are robots. And the Brazilians, ah, the Brazilians, they just love to dance.

I’ve heard a lot of the old standbys lately. The other day Franz Beckenbauer reprised the classic notion that England players just boot the ball mindlessly, calling their style, “kick and rush.” A number of commentators called the Italians “negative,” (i.e. overly defensive) and all the ESPN broadcasters could talk about after the Portugal game was the “diving” of Cristiano Ronaldo (I only saw one dive, and I saw him get fouled a lot). Meanwhile, Dutch midfielder Mark Van Bommel said, after the Netherlands won sluggishly and Germany won in style: “We played like the Germans… they played like us,” which may be oddly a boast.

It’s immaterial that most of these commonplaces fall with the slightest push, like Ronaldo. (Italy, for example, was pushing its defense high up the field and trying to get down the flanks. They weren’t negative; they were just bad.) What is interesting, and unfortunate, is that we don’t have too much else to talk about because so far the play on the field has been mostly boring. The teams aren’t fulfilling their stereotypes. Instead, they’re playing with the same conservative style. When the ESPN commentators took Portugal to task for their lack of offense, I realized the same criticism could be leveled at their opponent, Ivory Coast, and that both of these teams have in the past had great attacking flair and spotty defense. You might say it was a triumph for both teams, just not for us.

A lot of our prejudices are hard won. Josh’s feelings about Italy stem partly from the wicked elbow that Daniele De Rossi threw at American striker Brian McBride four years ago. Even some of our more capricious World Cup attachments often come from surprises on the field. Ecuador attracted my support last time, not just with a shirt, but with incisive, exciting play (before they faced England and wilted). Who will surprise me this year? Who will shake this up this Cup? We need it. It could be South Africa, the home-town underdogs. It could be Spain, Argentina, or Germany, who have looked the most promising. Or, it could be North Korea.

I have a framed photo, actually two copies of it in a folding double frame, of Kim Jung-Il and Madeleine Albright (pictured above). I don’t have it because I like Kim or Albright or have some deep interest in foreign policy. I have it because I think it’s weird. North Korea are the only mystery we have in this World Cup, and today they dared to play the Brazilians tough, and even to score (They lost, 2-1). Am I really rooting for the evil dictatorship to triumph? Maybe not. But it would be nice for them to complicate things in the Group of Death. Give us someone to cheer for, or to cheer against. It’s better than watching the Dutch play like the Germans.

It should be noted that I started hating the Italians back when they were both brutes and divers, a rare twofer amongst teams that burn my eyeballs. I’m still pulling for the Dutch and the Elephants, and of course Team Tim Howard, but I have to say Germany has, in one brilliant game, nearly broken free of my shitlist. Though I still hate Michael Ballack and Schweinsteiger.

Josh    Jun 16, 02:29 PM    #

Ballack’s out so that should help quell the fires of your hatred.

— Austin    Jun 16, 06:29 PM    #

I’m rooting for Korea DPR, solely based on the fact that their coach communicates with KJI with a tiny (invisible?) mobile phone that he invented. I’m also rooting for them because he will only broadcast games that N. Korea wins; given that this unlikely, I’m sort of rooting for the citizens to get to see an actual World Cup game. Finally, I’m hoping that if they win, maybe KJI will emerge and show us his awesome golf skills, given that he is supposedly the most amazing, naturally-gifted golfer ever.

— HL    Jun 16, 10:57 PM    #

I also forgot to mention the fact that China sent (or KJI asked them to send?) 100 or so fans to root for the PRK. That’s odd on many levels, not the least of which is the fact that they sent fewer people than most people have friends on Facebook. How large is that stadium? Could you even hear a single fake PKR fan, especially given the vuvuzela buzz? Sounds like a wasted investment in order to give a semblance of a fan base.

— HL    Jun 16, 11:09 PM    #

I wonder how you get to be one of those fans. Do they dress up?

— Austin    Jun 17, 06:29 AM    #

I’m disappointed that the North Korean team’s warm-up suits don’t at all resemble Kim Jong Il’s beige Florida retiree jumpsuit.

— Brian    Jun 17, 08:27 AM    #

Austin – I think if you wait outside in Times Square and still aren’t able to make it onto TRL, they send you out to be a North Korean fan. Just look at this sign as evidence:

Brian – I agree about the outfits. I’m surprised nobody sells them actually; are they custom-made?

— HL    Jun 17, 12:40 PM    #

HL, I saw that sign. Is it brilliant or a weird ploy to get on TV? I can’t decide… I might call World Soccer Shop to see if they’ll stock the KJI kit.

Austin    Jun 17, 12:45 PM    #

Likely just a ploy to get on TV; I doubt those guys are savvy enough to make such a nuanced political stance. I wonder, though, if it made it onto ESPN PKR?

— HL    Jun 17, 01:57 PM    #

Make that PRK… I really should just write North Korea and avoid the abbreviations.

— HL    Jun 17, 01:58 PM    #