On August 9th a group of Koryo Tours staff, friends, and what are charmingly known in the football world as WAGS, travelled to the central Chinese city of Wuhan to attend the final matches in the 2015 East Asia Football Federation championship; a little-known regional tournament (for a primer check out this page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EAFF_East_Asian_Cup). The games we were going to see were North Korea vs South Korea, and China vs Japan. Two big rivalries and not games that we felt, as football fans, that we could really miss, being just 5 hours fast train ride from Wuhan.
The previous evening had seen the same matches played but by the women’s teams, in which the DPRK ladies had avenged their bizarre forced absence from the recent Women’s World Cup in Canada (it’s a long story, but steroid accusations, powdered deer antler, and a team being allegedly struck by lightning are all involved) to win the tournament, beating South Korea in their last match to consolidate their position at the top of Asian Women’s football.
The men’s team, while not as feted as the Korean ladies, had also done well; while losing to China in the first game they had managed to beat the mighty Japan in their second match and needed a win against South Korea (a regular at World Cups and one of the strongest teams in Asia) to have a chance of matching their female compatriots and lifting the trophy.
On arrival at Wuhan Zhuankou stadium there were a few hundred Chinese fans milling around outside, all there for the third Korean team, the one that gets more column inches and TV minutes than the other two; the North Korean cheer squad. We saw them get off their buses, raise their flags, adjust their white caps and march into the stadium. This cheer squad is made up of North Koreans living and working in China, mostly waitresses (who are chosen for the jobs based on looks – hence the media fascination with them) in some of the numerous DPRK restaurants across China.
Some of the squad chatted with locals and curious foreigners, then they marched into the ground to take up their place in the stands, and practice their routines (mostly swaying, singing, waving handkerchiefs, – not the acrobatics associated with American cheerleaders, something much more demure).
The tiny crowd (which was to swell to over 30,000 for the second match) cheered on the North Koreans over the South Koreans when the game began, and it was among the dullest 45 minutes of football I have ever seen (and I have a very low bar for such things), half time was a mercy at 0-0 and we all started to wonder if we weren’t better off heading to one of the fine Belgian bars we had discovered the night before.
The second half though was a revelation; non-stop football from both sides, attack, attack, attack – mistakes aplenty, players running into each other, flashes of genius and the single most remarkable goalkeeping display I have ever seen from the North Korean keeper, without whom the South Koreans could easly have scored 6 goals; clearances off the line, fingertip saves, the ball bouncing around inside the 6-yard box but somehow never finding the net. The game ended 0-0 but this was far from a bore-fest, it was an exciting, (if somewhat amateurish) half of football, well worth the journey.
Unfortunately for the Chollima team this mean they had no chance to lift the trophy (it is not a tournament per se, its played as a series of round-robins) but South Korea were still in contention. The last match of the tournament saw China needing a victory to take the cup, a draw or a win for Japan handing honours to the South Korean side.
This game was what the crowd was there for and they were reading for some noise. The tiny Japanese contingent were safely ensconced in one small part of a stand and dozens of police and soldiers barred any local fans from going into that area at all; no love is lost between China and Japan these days after all.
During the Japanese national anthem most of the Chinese fans remained seating (despite being asked to stand by the tannoy announcer, and by convention as well) which wasn’t very impressive, even less those who greeted the anthem with boos and blowing of horns. Pretty bad form from those fans, very unsporting indeed.
This match was a superb one; with Shanghai hero Wu Lei opening the scoring and then going from hero to zero when he found himself through on goal a second time and managing to trip himself over when faced with an easy second. Of course he came to rue that mistake when Japan equalized. The game carried on with chances for both sides and ended at 1-1 with the Chinese team devastated at missing out on raising the cup in front of a home crowd. A crowd which immediately left the stadium en masse in the pouring rain. No idea how many stuck around to see the South Koreans lift the trophy, probably just the 20 or so hardcore fans they had remaining in the ground by the end of the final game.
The highlight though was the interaction between the Chinese fans and the North Korean cheer squad. I met up with an old travel colleague from Pyongyang who was the cheerleaders’ cheer leader; the man with the microphone who told them what to sing, and what dance to do. As a fluent Chinese speaker he was in much demand from curious fans asking him to speak to the ladies for them (ignorant of the fact that as they work in China most of them could speak Chinese just fine for themselves) and translating their chants into Chinese. The squad posed for photos gladly and enjoyed the attention, they seemed pleased with the result against South Korea even though the Northerners hadn’t scored a goal, they stood up well against a much better team and defended intensely and admirably after all.
This tournament takes place again in two years in Japan, let’s hope that the same teams get to meet again for two more excellent games of football. And that the fans on all sides can show friendship and decency, and keep quiet for each other’s anthems. The North and South Koreans managed it for each other this time after all!