N. Koreans Watch Live As Portugal Crushes Team 7-0

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Portugal celebrates after scoring as North Korea's An Yong Hak, walks past during the World Cup group G match between Portugal and North Korea in Cape Town, South Africa on Monday. Portugal won 7-0. (AP)
Portugal celebrates after scoring as North Korea's An Yong Hak, walks past during the World Cup group G match between Portugal and North Korea in Cape Town, South Africa on Monday. Portugal won 7-0. (AP)

It was supposed to be North Korea's moment of glory, a revenge match against Portugal aired live for the first time in a communist country that exerts strict control over media coverage.

It ended up a 7-0 humiliating loss that crushed the team's World Cup dreams as North Koreans watched back home - perhaps having the opposite effect intended by a leadership seeking to rally solidarity in the impoverished nation by showing the match live.

"The Portuguese won the game and now have four points. We are ending our live broadcast now," a Korean Central Broadcasting commentator said, quickly cutting to footage of factory workers and engineers praising North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Dejected and dispirited, the North Korea team left Green Point Stadium in Cape Town's scenic waterfront as fast as they could, shuffling past reporters with their heads bowed. One player, seeing a familiar face, grimaced as though in pain but shook the friend's hand as he walked past without a word.

Star forward Jong Tae Se, who dropped to his knees in dejection as the game ended, said after the game that he was upset they had made so many errors, and apologized to his nation for failing to fulfill their World Cup hopes and not being able to avenge the loss to Portugal in the 1966 quarterfinals - North Korea's most recent World Cup before this tournament.

The normally loquacious Jong, who has failed to score during the World Cup, later slipped out another entrance, away from the crush of reporters.

Portugal's Tiago, who scored two goals Monday, wished the North Koreans well in their final game against Ivory Coast but said he wasn't sorry about scoring: "It's just football," he said.

But it's not just football for a nation struggling to feed its people, locked in a standoff with world powers over its nuclear program and hauled before the U.N. Security Council over the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship.

It is the first time in four decades that North Korea has qualified for the World Cup, a rare point of pride for a nation increasingly at odds with the outside world.

North Korea's football players were feted as heroes when they returned home last year after qualifying for the World Cup, and the pressure on them to perform on football's biggest international stage was immense.

Football is North Korea's most popular sport, and has one exceptionally important fan: leader Kim Jong Il.

Kim, now 68, used the success of the last North Korean team to make it to the World Cup, in 1966, as political capital during his campaign to take over leadership from father Kim Il Sung, according to Moon Ki-nam, a former national coach for North Korea who defected to the South in 2004.

Kim was officially anointed his father's heir in 1974, and assumed leadership upon his father's death in 1994. He's widely believed to be grooming his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to take over as leader.

Still a keen football fan, the elder Kim gave the current national team "in-depth guidance," a North Korean football official said in April.

Kim and his totalitarian leadership maintain strict control over the media, allowing only one state-run TV channel, banning shortwave foreign radio broadcasts and restricting outside Internet access to the elite.

Yet coverage of this World Cup has been unprecedented, with state TV airing tape-delayed footage of a number of matches in full - including that of rival South Korea - despite wrangles about how the broadcaster would obtain the feed.

In the past, only snippets of World Cup matches were shown, sometimes weeks later. In 2002 and 2006, a South Korean broadcaster relayed live footage as part of reconciliation efforts with the wartime rival, but North Korea chose to show only tape-delayed parts of matches.


Negotiations began last year to provide the footage again, but stalled amid rising tensions between North and South over the March sinking of a warship in the disputed waters off the Koreas' west coast.

South Korea's SBS television, which owns the broadcast rights for the entire Korean peninsula, said it would not beam the World Cup to North Korea as in the past. In a last-minute deal, the Malaysia-based Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union offered North Korea free live coverage.

After showing the team's 2-1 loss to Brazil last week a day late, Pyongyang's state TV announced Monday that the much-anticipated match against Portugal - the nation that ended the team's World Cup dreams in 1966 - would be aired live.

It would be the first North Korean football match played overseas to air live back home, a small but significant milestone for a nation that seeks to filter the view North Koreans have of the outside world - and a gamble for a regime hoping success on the pitch will spur the people's pride.

Nervous but excited, goalkeeper Ri Myong Guk's older brother and other relatives settled in at his in-laws' small apartment outside Pyongyang with beers and snacks.

North Korea came out attacking, much to their delight.

"Watching the game live, I felt like I was in South Africa myself," the brother, Ri Myong Il, told TV news agency APTN in Pyongyang.

But it was silence all around when Raul Meireles scored Portugal's first goal 29 minutes in.

"Our defenders didn't see him unexpectedly coming out from behind," the state TV commentator said. "They should have more awareness about those coming from behind."

At halftime: World Cup history and an update on overall results. Also, the broadcast of a patriotic song: "We Love Our Country the Most." But state TV made no attempt to conceal scenes of the crowd and ads for World Cup sponsorship plastered around Green Point Stadium.

Three more Portuguese goals in the second half, in a matter of minutes, were met with more silence in Pyongyang. By the fourth goal, all hope was gone. The end of the match, after seven goals, came as a relief for goalkeeper Ri's family. And there was a distinct sense that watching it live made the loss all the more painful for the North Koreans.

In Cape Town, the exhausted North Korea team trudged off the field slowly, eyes downcast and shoulders hunched, as the Portuguese players shared a group hug behind them. They didn't even bother to swap jerseys.

"Tactically speaking, we fell apart and couldn't block their attacks," coach Kim Jong Hun said afterward.

He said the team, determined to score in the second half, let their defense lapse. "As the coach, I consider it my fault for not playing the right strategy - that's why we conceded a lot of goals," Kim said.

Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz offered words of support for Kim and his players.

"I register my respect for the North Korean team, whose players played in an extremely dignified way, without fouling players and with their head lifted very high," he said. "I want to tell the North Korean coach that sometimes we have to face these results, and would just like to manifest my respect."

But defectors, including the ex-North Korea coach, said poor play overseas has meant punishment back home, including being "purged" and sent to coal mines.

The North Korea coach insisted Sunday that there would be no punishment awaiting the team if they fail to reach their goal of advancing to the second stage.

"Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose; it doesn't always turn out the way you want. But there are going to be no further consequences," he told reporters.

Despite the devastating loss - the most lopsided of the 2010 World Cup so far - family members refused to criticize the team.

"If they have learned a lesson from today's match and accumulate more experiences in the future, I firmly believe that they will achieve better results in the future," Pak Il, the goalkeeper's father-in-law, told APTN.

Midfielder An Yong Hak, one of two Japan-born players on the North Korea team, said the mood in the locker room "wasn't good." But he was already looking to their third game against Ivory Coast.

"We made a lot of mistakes that forced us to eat too many goals," he told The Associated Press. "But we'll try our hardest to end and do our best in the final game."

This program aired on June 22, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.