As part of our series looking at different youth systems around the world we take a look at North Korea’s national academy.
North Korea have had phenomenal success in recent years at the various Asian youth championships.
They were runners-up at last year’s Under 19 Championships and won it in 2006 and 2010. They won the last two AFC Under 16 Championships after finishing second in 2004 and 2006 and reached three successive AFC U-14 finals.
Until recently the North Korean Football Association was receiving money from FIFA but when Switzerland imposed sanctions on the regime this source of funds stopped.
Before the money ran out they used it to build a football academy for their brightest young talents to attend. As well as this residential facility rumours abound that a number of North Korean youngsters have been sent overseas to train at European academies.
The reasons for North Korea’s relative success are shrouded in mystery.
Their sides perform with vim and vigour and often tower the opposition. But their achievements are notable given that North Korea remains one of the poorest nations on earth with a GDP way below the rest of Asia.
What is their secret?
Trying to find out information from the most secretive nation on earth is difficult.
Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours is one of the few people to have visited the FIFA funded academy. Koryo have been taking tourists to North Korea for more than two decades and he knows more than most about the state of football there.
We asked him how they do things at the Pyongyang academy and the state of football in North Korea in general.
Das Wunderkind: What is the national academy like?
Simon Cockerell “It’s nice but relatively basic in that it is just a couple of classrooms, lecture halls, some football pitches and some dorm rooms for the kids who stay there.
“The football pitches are artificial pitches and they are in pretty good condition. I can’t say that I have been to many other football academies but it’s basic but well done
DW: What other facilities does the academy have?
SC: “They have a lot of books about football in the library there. I saw a lecture being given all about putting spin on the ball.
“I don’t know if other football academies have lectures like this. There were about 30 kids there all dressed in school uniform.
DW: You have been touring North Korea for more than 20 years. Has football changed there over that time?
SC: “Generally speaking no, apart from this new football academy. Generally speaking most facilities remain the same.
“Schools in North Korea will generally have football pitches but they are all dirt gravel pitches, there are no markings and the goals don’t have nets – it is very basic
DW: Has the success of the North Korean youth sides surprised you?
SC: “Yes, I think so. There is an argument that football is really a game of demographics and the countries with the highest population of fanatical football fans that tend to do well obviously Mexico and China are the outliers in that argument.
“North Korea is not a particularly highly populated country and although football is the most popular sport games are not very well attended and it is poor. People don’t grow up kicking footballs around grass fields and things like that
DW: If it is not the facilities . . .
SC: “What is it down to? You could ascribe it to the lack of other things to do in the absence of the internet and everyone having a computer, mobile phones, that kind of thing.
“Kids who are good at football focus very strongly on it . A very strong focus on one specific skillset does tend to make you better at it.
“So they might not be any good at anything other than football but they have a generation of kids who appear to be top class, better than anyone else
DW: What is the standard of the domestic game like?
SC: “They clearly have players who can do it but the problems that I have seen are that the games I have been to are not that high a standard. Every team plays the same system so what they have is a lot of teams that are used to playing the same way. If they were to face a team that play a different style of play they will have no experience of playing that way.
“So it is hard for them and it is amazing that they have done so well. So it is important for them to get experience playing against teams who operate in a different way to them.
DW: North Korea have apparently sent some kids to train at European academies. What do you know about this?
SC: “I was told this by a couple of different people. I heard that it was Spain, Italy and Germany.
“The director of the academy was the one who said that they had sent some kids – he wasn’t the guy who had sent them though.
“He asked where the people I had taken there were from. When I said that one was from Germany he said that they had sent some kids to Germany.
DW: What do North Korea have to do in the future?
SC: “You have to learn to play to your strengths and the strengths of the North Korean’s tend to be speed and teamwork. It doesn’t tend to be height, brute strength and that kind of thing.
“The more players who get more experience is innately a better thing. Not just for football but in general too because people there have very little experience of living abroad and interacting with foreigners. So this way they will see that the world is not just full of people who wish them harm and have ebola.
DW: You were involved in the movie ‘The Game of Their Lives’. Are the 1966 side still revered?
SC: “Those guys are still very famous. There’s not so many of them left now but they are still very well known. It is a bit like England in that it was their famous moment. Everyone knows who the top two or three players were from that generation.