2010 North Korea

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Thanks to Florian a bunch of GAS guys had a once in a lifetime experience: Visiting North Korea and playing football in the 50.000 Kim Il Sung Kampfbahn!
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THE GERMAN ALL STARS VISIT PYONGYANG

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” back in 1939. As we have reached the 21st century the only country that can credibly claim such a complex status would without a shadow of a doubt be North Korea. “Asia’s dark star”, according to the Lonely Planet, a country run by the reclusive Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, and eternally presided over by his father, the founder of the nation, Great Leader Kim-Il Sung who passed away in 1994.
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First things first: North Korea is NOT a dangerous place and neither is it populated by goose-stepping robots bent on turning the Cold War, which is still very much alive at the 38th parallel, into a hot one. In fact, North Koreans are friendly, polite and generally curious people. Shyness of even making eye contact with western foreigners, very much prevalent until a few years ago, has been replaced by a healthy degree of curiosity with some locals seeking contact to practice their English or even German language skills.
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Immigration and customs procedures for our group of 18 were quick and efficient, at least in comparison with places like Hong Kong or Indonesia were queuing for an hour or so is more common than rare. The only noteworthy aspect of our first steps into the country was the collection of all mobile phones, the use of which is prohibited whilst in North Korea.
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DAY 1 – SOME TASTY ENCOUNTERS
On the 25km way into downtown Pyongyang, Mr Kim, together with Mr Bak our tour guide throughout the trip, gave us a brief introduction about his country and history, emphasizing the official name “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” or “DPRK” in short, on various occasions.
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If you believe that Singapore is as clean as it gets you ain’t seen nothing yet, and certainly haven’t been to Pyongyang. Describing the capital city of the DPRK as unique is clearly a massive understatement. Built from scratch after having been wiped out by American bombers during the 1950-1953 Korean War, the city has become what Lonely Planet calls the “ultimate totalitarian metropolis”, “an ideological statement forged in concrete, bronze and marble”.

Our first stop at the Arch of Triumph, a massive structure that is higher than its cousin in Paris, exemplified this. The structure was constructed at the very site where Kim Il Sung addressed Korean after the end of Japanese occupation in 1945. Nearby the arch is Kim Il Sung Stadium, the very place where we were played football during the next two days.
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Another sight that caught our immediate attention were the famous beauties regulating the traffic in Pyongyang. While traffic lights have taken their place at some junctions recently, the (presumably hand selected) ladies with their crisp white jackets, marine blue skirts and military style movements are still broadly indispensable.
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We stayed at the Koryo Hotel, one of the two premier places in Pyongyang for foreign guests, and the author’s favorite as it is right in the city center, only a few meters away from the railway station. Being stuck in our hotel after dinner (independent ventures into the city without the guides are not encouraged) we tested the quality of several local brews. While neighboring China boasts a wide range of beers, ranging from high quality types in compliance with German purity laws to rock bottom variations that shouldn’t even called beer, Pyongyang features three main brands: Taedonggang, named after the river that divides the capital into an eastern and a western part, easily beat the stale and unimaginatively named Pyongyang Beer. However, our favorite became a microbrewery draft that was available at the Koryo Hotel lobby and which made us spend considerable time there, voluntarily.
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DAY 2 – CHOLLIMA SPEED BEATS GERMAN KAMPFGEIST

After a good night rest we made it to the Mansudae Grand Monument in perfect weather. Visits to this 25m bronze status of Kim Il Sung is of utmost importance to the hosts and follows a strict protocol: purchase of flowers, placing these at the statue’s feet, and a collective bow. Just north of the monument, half way to the Arch of Triumph, is the statue of Chollima, the winged mythical horse that could cover hundreds of kilometers a day and was considered untamable. The name of the steed was also given to the DPRK national football team. What the “Three Lions” are for the English fans are the “Chollimas” for the North Koreans.
Football is the national sport of the DPRK. The greatest sporting moment was the surprise 1-0 victory against Italy during the 1966 World Cup bwhich catapulted the DPRK into the quarter finals where they were beaten 3-5 by Portugal after a 3-0 halftime lead. The football association runs three professional leagues and our opponent from Pyongyang features teams in all three. Just after 2pm we were driven to the very 85,000 capacity Kim Il Sung stadium where the Pyongyang teams play their league matches.

Being fully aware of our status as rank outsider against Pyongyang‘s second outfit, a leading team of the 2nd division, the strategy was a decisively defensive one. The following are the starting eleven of the historic first ever official match of a German football team on DPRK soil:
The GAS played in all black with #1 Rene Schieber in goal; #2 Hermann Bergmann, #5 Ingo Hartmann, #4 Denis Mecklenburg, #3 Steffen Schacher in defense; #6 Matthias Bertl, #8 Thomas Berner, #7 Hendrik Bohne, #11 Simone Magnani and #10 Philipp von Pein in midfield; #9 Florian Schmidt as striker an honorary captain. #12 Joerg Buenzel started on the bench but joined the fray towards the end of the first half; our #13, Helge Muenkel, rather unfortunately injured himself during the warm-up and was unable to play.
The Koreans took the event seriously as the appointment of a FIFA referee and the exchange of pennants (we provided a “Jabulani” ball in lieu of pennants) prior to kick-off demonstrated. After kick-off we were treated for plenty of the same seriousness. Pyongyang, in red jerseys, attacked at “Chollima Speed” with a past paced and technically perfect passing game. After 8 minutes we found ourselves 0-1 behind and under massive pressure. The upright came to our rescue as much as Shiba who did not only have an outstanding day in goal but was the only GAS player who “tested” his Korean counterpart with what must have been his longest kick ever. As the first half drew on and the GAS gradually discovered their fighting spirit Shiba became the crowds’ favorite (there were a few hundred wildly cheering North Koreans, mainly schoolkids, in the stands). 0-1 it was at halftime. After a motivating “hang in there speech” by de facto captain Tommy, the second 45 minutes saw much of the same one-way football with the Koreans squandering or Shiba blocking plenty of scoring opportunities. It has to be said that the Germans were heroically defending, at times with 11 man behind the ball. And yet, the chance for a late equalizer presented itself in the very last minute of the match: one of two meaningful GAS attacks resulted in a corner, the clearance of which fell to Pipo. His shot from 15 yards was parried by the goalie though. 0-1 it was at the end, a face saving score for both sides.
The football was followed by another highlight later in the evening: a visit to the famous “Arirang” mass games at the May Day Stadium, the world’s biggest. The show tells Korea’s history in an incredible combination of acrobatics, dance, mass coordination and heavy, patriotic opera style music. Some 20,000 kids in the stands flip card books with synchronized precision to make a stream of pictures while thousands of acrobats, students and soldiers do their stunning formations and displays on the pitch (and high up in the air).

DAY 3 – THE FIRST GERMAN GOALS ON NORTH KOREAN SOIL

More sightseeing with Kim Il Sung’s birthplace, a humble and typical Korean peasant house just outside of the Pyongyang city proper, followed by the Pyongyang Metro. The network comprises two lines and is operated by 2nd hand train units from West Berlin. Stations are as deep as 130 meters below the surface, and clearly remind the visitor of the Moscow tube system, as much as the deep elaborate decorations with marble, glittering chandeliers and impressive murals do.

With Hermann suffering from fever and Helge out, the GAS side was left with exactly 11 healthy players for their second match, never mind the fact that each of these players still very much felt the first match in his bones and muscles. And thus the first half against Pyongyang’s 3rd outfit (which tops the 3rd division) saw an early 0-1 and once again full pressure on the German side. Unlike 24 hours earlier, however, the GAS managed some neat attacking moves, the most promising perhaps finished with a shot by Florian. His attempt from 20 yards could have been the equalizer but was well saved by the Pyongyang goalie. However, sloppiness in our passing game towards the end of the half allowed the Koreans to score two late goals. It could have been even worse hadn’t the referee adapted a rather idiosyncratic interpretation of the offside rule, depriving the Pyongyang reds of clear opportunities. A thorough Tommy-style “Das reicht nicht hairdryer treatment” at half time, in conjunction with some changes and a more easy going approach by the Koreans allowed the GAS to get back into the game. Decent passing moves at last resulted in some decent opportunities, and after 72 minutes Madse scored the first ever official German goal in Pyongyang with a clacker from 16 yards into the top right corner. A much more adventurous GAS side was now looking for the Anschlusstreffer” but the Chollimas managed to strike on the counter. With less than 10 minutes to go the GAS didn’t give up, though, and after 88 minutes the team was rewarded with Madse’s second goal from the left to make it a final, again face-saving, 2-4.
With a lesson or two learnt about quality football beyond Cosmoleague and Midweek levels, we immediately after the final whistle succumbed to the temptations of Taedonggang lager. Friendship drinking was continued throughout the evening, first during a superb Korean BBQ while listening to “Arirang” and “Santa Lucia” tunes produced by a bunch of multi-talented waitresses. After dinner, and a quick tour through Pyongyang at night, the hard core All-Stars orchestrated their very own singing frenzy in the karaoke bar of the Koryo hotel, accompanied by generous portions of vodka. .
DAY 4 – FAST LEARNERS
Our final day in the DPRK included a visit to the Grand People’s Study House, a huge library with over 30 million books where we had an intriguing encounter with German speaking Koreans. Their command of German was nothing less than stunning, give that all of them claimed to have learnt the language for a mere 7 months … Equally stunning was the view from the balcony across Kim Il Sung square where scores of people were practicing formations for the upcoming 65th anniversary of the Worker’s party of Korea. Right on the opposite side of the Taedong River is the 170m tall Tower of Juche, which honors the men-centered state-philosophy of the DPRK. The tower is made of 25.550 granite blocks, one for every day in Kim Il Sung’s life until his 70th birthday. A swing by the Mansudae Art Studio gave us a sense of socialist realist art before we were treated to a traditional and very tasty Naengmyon (Korean Cold Noodle) lunch.

This was the final act. After two football matches, three full days of resolutely revolutionary sightseeing, lots of Kimchi and a million and a half new impressions we left the DPRK towards Beijing, thoroughly exhausted but also delighted about the possibility to visit a country so different form the ones we knew, but yet connected in friendship through the world’s beautiful game – football !

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