North Korea's soccer team remains a mystery to the world. After going down seven-nil to Portugal at the World Cup, new rumors made the rounds that the players would surely be punished once they returned home.
Karl Messerli with North Korean coach Kim Jong Hun
Karl Messerli is a Swiss entrepreneur who produces textiles in North Korea. Because in a former life he played football himself in the highest Swiss league, he has developed an interest in North Korean soccer. He always tries to catch league matches during his visits to the reclusive country.
One day he had an idea: "I contacted the sports ministry via the foreign ministry and proposed a plan which would help them improve by allowing players to go abroad and play," he explains.
It took almost a year to convince the officials, says Messerli, but in the end they agreed that in the current set-up - where they were only playing other North Korean teams - they would not get any better.
Jong Tae Se was overcome with emotion as he listens to the national anthem before the match with Brazil
European clubs are interested
Messerli now holds the transfer rights for North Korean players who want to play in Western Europe. The World Cup has offered North Korea a unique chance to showcase its footballers internationally.
Although the team lost twice, Messerli is optimistic. He says several European clubs have signalled their interest. "Clubs from four countries are interested: Germany, England, Italy and Slovenia. The most sought-after player is definitely their number 9, Jong Tae Se," he says.
Striker Jong Tae Se earns his money in Japan's J League and two of his teammates in the North Korean team also play for a foreign club.
Rumors of punishment
Not least because of the secrecy surrounding the team, all kinds of rumors have spread during the World Cup. After their first match, there was speculation that four players had gone missing and would seek political asylum. This turned out to be untrue.
Messerli says such rumors are nonsense, as it is North Korea's explicit policy to send players abroad. Neither was it true that the North Korean players had to fear being sent to forced labor camps back home if they did not perform well in South Africa.
North Korea were no match for Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal team
"These are just fairy tales and rumors," Messerli laughs. "The North Korean national team will have to start with the qualifying matches for the Asia Cup soon after going home. The players will have to resume training and playing after a short break. There's no way they can go to a labor camp!"
Messerli doesn't think his work in North Korea can be seen as giving support to a dictatorial regime. "If you don't do anything there, who are you punishing? You're just punishing the people. We are dealing with sport, not with politics. And it has always been sport that has built bridges and changed things. We've seen that in China in the past," he insists.
For North Korea's last World Cup match against Ivory Coast on Friday, Messerli expects a better, more disciplined North Korean team than the one which lost seven nil to Portugal. But he does admit it is unlikely North Korea will win.
Author: Thomas Baerthlein
Editor: Anne Thomas