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Frenzy over North Korea's men of mystery

sports Updated: Jun 19, 2010 11:13 IST

The footballing officialdom of FIFA would like North Korea's players to be viewed and treated like any other team at the World Cup. Yet pretty much everything about these international men of footballing mystery makes that impossible.

Other teams don't need to be shielded by FIFA officials telling reporters not to ask political questions. Strictly football only.

Other teams have been followed here by legions of real fans - not the 100 or so men in team colors who came from the other day to cheer when the Koreans defied but ultimately lost to Brazil.

Other teams don't cause a media frenzy when they omit four players from a match sheet. One assumption when that happened this week was that the "missing" players might have gone AWOL and be seeking political asylum. That is not as crazy as it sounds: thousands of their countrymen have already fled in the past decade, escaping famine, the secret police and the cult of Kim Jong Il, North Korea's so-called "Dear Leader."

Kim better than anyone knows that football is not apolitical. He is a known football fan and, according to a national coach who defected, exploited North Korea's legendary quarterfinal run at the 1966 World Cup to further his own ascent to power. Kim is said by his propagandists to have dispensed nuggets of footballing wisdom to this World Cup side, so its success or failure is most definitely a political matter.

Who knows, if North Korea does well again this time, then Kim's youngest son might be able to milk it, too. He's thought to be waiting in the wings for the day, perhaps not that far off, when his ailing 68-year-old father dies. Riding the World Cup team's coattails could be a political leg-up that Kim Jong Un could use.