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World Cup's mystery team: Who will cheer? Who will watch? What will they wear?
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The North Koreans have landed. But unlike every other team at the World Cup, they don’t have a crowd of colorfully clad supporters in tow.
Dressed in natty suits and waving small national flags, the “Chollima” squad — named after a mythical winged horse too speedy to be mounted — arrived in Johannesburg this week to begin their first World Cup in 44 years.
They are the mystery team of the tournament, the worst-ranked country to have qualified, and made up almost entirely of unknown players.
The isolated Orwellian state is not sending hordes of fans. Even if there are a few North Korean supporters, they might not lend much audible support. At home, North Koreans wear their street clothes to soccer matches — no wild fan apparel — and sit in silence, according to North Korean experts. They don’t stand when the national anthem is played, don’t sing along, and have no chants or songs to cheer their team, even when it is winning.
The North Korean team was expected to train in Zimbabwe ahead of the tournament, in a province where tens of thousands of civilians were killed by North Korean-trained Zimbabwean troops in the 1980s.
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Instead they have moved into their base at the four-star Protea Hotel Midrand, located in South Africa's nether region between Johannesburg and Pretoria. The hotel boasts a “hip and trendy” African-themed lounge, and a terrace where guests sip sundowner cocktails while overlooking a waterfall and koi pond.
“It is great for us to come to the World Cup in South Africa, and we have a great desire for success in the tournament,” coach Kim Jong-hun said in an official statement upon arrival on June 1.
It will be a rare appearance by the isolated country on the world stage when the team takes to the field June 15 to play Brazil at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park in their first game.
No one knows how the North Korean team will perform, although their matchup with five-time world champions Brazil doesn’t leave much hope for a first-match win. Their placement in the tournament’s “Group of Death,” which also includes Portugal and African powerhouse Ivory Coast, means that more tough games will follow.
Back home, soccer is North Korea’s most popular sport, although it is the strong women’s team that is known more for its successes than the men’s squad, says Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, which organizes trips to North Korea.