N. Korea eyes sending 31 boys to Italy, Spain for soccer exchanges

North Korea intends to send 31 teenage boys to Italy and Spain as part of soccer exchange programs from next month at the earliest, scouts and soccer school officials of the European countries said Sunday, in a move apparently aimed at boosting North Korea's position in global soccer.

A South Korean diplomatic source in Rome said North Korea's move to "invest heavily on the youths is likely because it wants to secure foreign currency when the young athletes eventually turn pro and receive high pay."

The source said the soccer exchanges were "undoubtedly the idea" of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un who loves sports.

Of the 31 boys aged 10 to 12, 20 will undergo training with Italian Soccer Management based in Perugia in central Italy under a five-year contract, scouts from the academy told Kyodo News.

The academy trains young soccer players and recommends them to professional football clubs such as Serie B side Empoli.

Italian Soccer Management, at the request of North Korea, dispatched two of its scouts to Pyongyang on July 11 to 19 and they interviewed about 300 candidates in the presence of the North Korean soccer association. The scouts selected 20.

The boys' travel and living expenses will be shouldered by North Korea, with lodging, study and other expenses for each boy costing around 16,000 euros, or roughly 2.15 million yen annually, the scouts said.

While in Pyongyang, the scouts stayed at the Pyongyang International Football School, which was opened in May to train elite soccer players and is equipped with dormitories.

"All the trainees could ever think about was soccer," said Matteo Di Tanna, one of the scouts.

Once visas are issued, the soccer exchange students and their two coaches will leave North Korea as soon as early November.

The 11 other teenage boys, aged between 10 and 11, are expected to be trained soon by Fundacion Marcet, a soccer school in Barcelona, Spain, according to its spokesman, Gionata Chatillard.

The North Korean men's soccer team is 107th in the world rankings of soccer governing body FIFA. The country's team first drew attention when it beat Italy in a 1966 World Cup game to reach the quarterfinals.