Football Back In The Headlines: DPRK Women at the 2012 Olympics

July 22nd, 2012
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In a previous article, I examined the state of men’s football in the DPRK, from the perspectives of both on and off the pitch. This summer it’s the turn of the women’s team to be in the spotlight as they feature in the 2012 Olympics later this month, hoping to finally make the same kind of breakthrough on the international stage as they have already done in Asian tournaments. Ranked second only to Japan in the AFC confederation, they have consistently competed for honours in Asia, and are an almost permanent feature in the top 10 of the world rankings. It is when going outside of Asia that they encounter problems however, having had comparatively disastrous campaigns both in the World Cups, and at the Olympics. In combination with their expulsion from the 2015 World Cup qualifying campaign as a punishment for failed drugs tests, this leaves the 2012 Olympics as a massive event for the team. With this in mind, I’ll be reviewing the state of women’s football in the DPRK in the first part of this article, and then taking a look ahead in part two to their three group games at the Olympics, including a game in Manchester against the country’s traditional political foes, the USA.

With the women’s game having traditionally played second fiddle to the men’s game across the world, organised international tournaments are a relatively recent feature on the footballing calendar. The DPRK was late even by these standards, missing six AFC tournaments from 1975, and playing only their first game in 1989, a heavy 4-1 defeat to China in Hong Kong. From these ignominious beginnings, including abject failure in regional tournaments, things have since turned completely on their head. They have won the Asian Cup three times from the past five tournaments, and their record victory currently stands as a resounding 24-0 demolition of Singapore in 2001. Since the creation of the FIFA Women’s Rankings in 2003, their average position is 6th, solidifying their place amongst the top teams in the world game, and vying for regional dominance with neighbours Japan. Although unlikely to be regarded favourites ahead of teams like the USA, Brazil or Germany, they would appear to be an excellent team who are capable of beating anyone on their day. It’s almost typical then as a DPRK team that the stories and information behind their side are as much of a mystery as everything else.

Unlike recent initiatives within the men’s game to send players to European countries to gain experience and improve their skills, the women’s team is made up exclusively of domestic players. There are no Zainichi Koreans to bolster the squad, and no experienced players having even made the short move to China. Undoubtedly, the lack of established female leagues around the world plays a part in this, as well as the far lower wages granted to female players in comparison with those of men. We are unlikely to see any of the squad making the move to the USA, UK, Germany or France for obvious political reasons. Russia does feature prominently within European ranking tables, but nowhere near lucrative enough to consider as a staging post for foreign transfers. Going down this path, the now favoured footballing haven of Switzerland is a relatively poor league even in Europe, while Denmark is still in a trial phase for male players. It would seem that the options are few and far between if the theory of politics, footballing prominence and finances are held to this example. However, I favour a different conclusion for the DPRK’s female players, and that it’s just as likely that with the team currently ranked so high, sending players abroad is unlikely to make a massive difference to the ability and success of the national side. Bearing this in mind, it is unlikely we will see any female players make the move to foreign shores in the near future, with a number of Asian teams in particular unlikely to place any greater focus on creating a strong female side, thus drastically reducing any possible destinations.

So far it would seem that the women’s team operates very differently to that of the men, but there is one aspect in which they match them very well: a reluctance to play home games in the DPRK. As with the men, there are unavoidable scenarios in which games must be held at home, namely qualifying matches for certain tournaments. When these occur, Pyongyang is the chosen venue. When it comes to friendlies, the vast majority are played on Chinese soil, and usually in the Eastern provinces. Indeed, since 1998, only 12 games have been played in Pyongyang, and against only 5 teams; Australia six times, China twice, Nigeria twice, Taiwan and Hong Kong. However, unlike the men,  women cannot claim an outrageous run of home friendlies without defeat, having lost 1-0 to Australia in 1998. The standout name in that list is undoubtedly Nigeria, with both matches being played in May of 2010. If you know your DPRK football, you may remember that Nigeria withdrew from a friendly against the men’s team at the exact same time because there were no appearance and hospitality fees being paid. Strange, therefore, that the women’s match would go ahead. It can only be imagined that the fee in this case was lower, or the Nigerian women were simply happy to travel to play a top-level team. Overall though, not much can really be ascertained from the pattern of friendlies. Even when playing outside Pyongyang, the fixtures are against a mix of European, North American and prominent sides from around the world. Pragmatically, the DPRK has realised that there is little political currency in the women’s game, and perhaps more so in the Middle East, where the men’s team has played an increasing amount of friendlies. For this reason their fixtures are aimed solely at competing against decent opposition, and avoiding home friendlies whenever possible.

An article about the DPRK would not be complete without at least some sign of controversy, and in recent years the women’s team has provided that aplenty. During the 2011 Women’s World Cup, five players failed a drugs test, and were subsequently banned from the 2015 World Cup entirely. In their defence, the DPRK had blamed the drugs test failures on musk deer gland medicine that had been used to treat injuries from a lightning strike weeks before the tournament began. Perhaps predictably, FIFA rejected this explanation and enforced the ban, as well as fining the team the exact amount of prize money that they had received for their participation in the tournament. The five players involved were given suspensions from the game, a move which will see the side weakened going into the 2012 Olympics. The controversy did not end there however, with Australia furious that the ban did not also include the Olympic Games, a move which would have resulted in Australia going to the tournament instead. Watch out for some bitter words if the DPRK manage to go all the way and finish in the medals.

North Korea women’s team will play USA on July 31st at 5pm GMT, at Old Trafford, Manchester.

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About the Author

Gerard Clare

Gerard Clare is a research student at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, specialising in issues of regionalism and centre-periphery relations in the Russian Far East, including how citizens on the periphery can identify with central representations of what it means to be Russian, and in what ways these representations may conflict with regional identities. His knowledge extends through to Russia-DPRK relations in the post-Soviet era, with particular focus on engagement, expectations and wider themes around energy and security. He has previously completed both his undergraduate degree in Central and East European Studies in 2011, and his MSc in Russian, Central and East European studies in 2012, at the University of Glasgow. He has contributed a number of articles to NKNews since 2011, looking at Russia-DPRK relations, Six-Party Talks and even football within the DPRK.

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