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“The Asian Rooney”

The North Korean football team has taken off its veil," wrote the Seoul media after their northern neighbours drew 2-2 with Greece in a World Cup warm-up in Switzerland on Tuesday.

sports Updated: May 31, 2010 23:47 IST
The Guardian/John Duerden
The Guardian/John Duerden

The North Korean football team has taken off its veil," wrote the Seoul media after their northern neighbours drew 2-2 with Greece in a World Cup warm-up in Switzerland on Tuesday. For the next few weeks the face that is revealed to the world, at least as far as football fans are concerned, will for a change not be that of a short, bespectacled dictator. The Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, will be upstaged by "the People's Rooney", Jong Tae-se, a steely-eyed footballer full of passion, ambition, power and not a little humour: a popular goalscorer who, if he has his way, will soon be playing in the Premier League.

Jong is already a star in east Asia. He took the 2008 East Asian Championship by storm in China; is one of the top strikers in Japan's J-League; has appeared in television adverts alongside Manchester United's Park Ji-sung in South Korea; and, most unusually in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, where supporters do little more than clap at football matches, has had his name chanted by 80,000 fans at Kim Il-sung Stadium in Pyongyang. Now he is ready to take on the world.

Jong's two sumptuous strikes against Greece - the first a 25-yard shot that crashed in off the bar, the second a fierce strike from a tight angle after a burst of acceleration past a defender - may even have caused a few frowns in the training camps of World Cup Group G opponents Brazil, Ivory Coast and Portugal.

Over green tea in the ground floor restaurant in the Kanagawa Science Park, a hotel in Kawasaki just outside Tokyo where Jong plays his club football, it is hard to stop the 26-year-old talking. In his deep, rich voice, he announces: "I want to score a goal a game at the World Cup, one goal a game, that is my target." And then? "I want to play in England."

It would complete an unusual journey. Jong was born, raised and still lives in Japan. There were reports in Seoul that his parents were South Korean but the player denies that this is the case and he appeared on the cover of South Korea's FourFourTwo magazine in 2008 above the headline: "I am not South Korean". Once he entered the pro-northern education system that operates in Japan's large Korean community, there was only one team he was going to play for.

Midfielder Ahn Yong-hak is another Japan-based North Korea international. Such players, who earn about £4,000 a week, go to Pyongyang on football-related visits only. Their team-mates earn a minimal state allowance and play for clubs such as the army outfit 25 April and Amroggang, one that has produced seven "heroes of the republic" in athletics and football. There is no professional football north of the 38th parallel, where matches draw sparse crowds. There are no divides in the DPRK dressing room, however.

Politics is the one issue that Jong will not talk about. Another no-no, though he enthused about it when the recorder was switched off, was the trial he undertook at a Premier League club earlier this year. He will not name the club, but says he realised he was not quite good enough.

He has been nicknamed Inminui Rooney - the People's Rooney - because of his aggressive and hard-working style and stocky build, but he thinks that it is not the best moniker. "I don't dislike being compared to Rooney, he is one of the greatest strikers in the world so it is a big honour, but my style of play is different to his. My benchmark is Didier Drogba.

"I want to play in England. When I was at high school, Italy's Serie A was the most popular league but with the help of cable television, I started watching English football and I really enjoyed the stadiums, the atmosphere and the passion.

Despite the presence of Drogba in the Ivory Coast team, Jong is more excited about the opening game on 15 June. "I am looking forward to facing all three teams, especially Brazil with their history and football tradition. It will be a great experience to play such a team."

On the back of a solid defence and a quick counterattack, North Korea finished second in a tough final group containing Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and South Korea.

"We never really thought about qualification before the final round but game by game we improved a lot and we were able to stop our opponents from playing to their strengths," Jong says. "I was very happy as qualification progressed because my team-mates were getting better and better."

"The team went back to Pyongyang and had a great reception. I couldn't go but as you can imagine as North Korea hasn't qualified for the World Cup since 1966 then everyone there was so happy when we qualified, so excited."

Jong hopes that the 2002 semifinalists perform well and he even has a regular column in the Seoul media."It may not be easy politically to be united but sport can unite people. If there are games in S. Korea and N. Korea, then that can contribute to peace on the Korean peninsula."

First Published: May 31, 2010 23:45 IST