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Tea Leaves

For Asia's reclusive regimes, sporting isolation is far from splendid

From Kabul to Pyongyang, 'playing the game' works better than exclusion

North Korean striker Jong Tae Se, center, cries as the country's national anthem is played before a match against Brazil at the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament in Johannesburg. Born in Japan, Jong attracted attention during the tourney for his open personality and accessibility to the press.     © Reuters

When reporting on reclusive countries such as North Korea and Turkmenistan, I came to realize some time ago that it's usually easier to gain access by being a sports writer rather than a political journalist. Even the most reclusive nations have know that sporting prowess is useful, on occasion, and isolation is not conducive to success.

In Afghanistan, which scored some recent successes in international soccer and even cricket and was planning to send athletes to the Paralympic Games in Tokyo, citizens seem too shocked right now to contemplate what the Taliban's lightning resurgence means for the country's sporting profile. Despite the new regime's assurances since taking power, if the earlier Taliban government is anything to go by, it will not be positive -- especially for women.

After years of Soviet occupation and debilitating civil war, Afghanistan's international sports efforts had already ground to a halt when the Islamist group first took power in 1996. The Taliban seemed to have little interest in reengaging with the rest of the world on the sporting field, with Kabul's Ghazi soccer stadium becoming better known overseas for executions than games. International soccer returned only in 2002 after the regime had been removed by the U.S.-led invasion.

The ensuing years saw remarkable progress with the establishment of the Afghan Premier League, with the men's national team famously defeating India in 2013 to become South Asian champion, and the creation of a women's national team. Images of hijab-wearing Afghan women and girls playing their international counterparts were inspiring and drew admiration worldwide. Now, despite assurances it would "honor women's rights but within Islamic law," there are deep concerns that sports will once again be out of reach for Afghan women given the Taliban's hard-line Islamist beliefs.

It would be tragic if the country completely abandons the international sports arena. Just as some officials in Pyongyang and Ashgabat love talking about their sporting passions, it is to be hoped that some within the Taliban feel the same way. A shared love of sport can break down barriers over time and relationships can be forged.

This is not to say that dealings with reclusive countries are always straightforward. I once applied to the North Korean Football Association for a pass to watch a 2010 World Cup qualifier in Pyongyang. The initial response was positive but, in the end, I did not get my visa. Unofficially the explanation given was that if I wanted a visa to visit in the future then I first had to already visit the country.

Leaving such Catch-22 conundrums aside, I did manage to witness North Korea's first game on the global stage in 44 years at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when it played against mighty Brazil. On that cold night in Johannesburg there were dozens of Brazilian soccer journalists inside Ellis Park Stadium all predicting huge victories and asking questions about who the North Korean players were. They had their story even before kickoff when suddenly a new global face of North Korea was on display besides that of its then leader Kim Jong Il.

A female soccer player juggles a ball during a practice session at the Golab Trust Sport Complex in Kabul, Afghanistan, in March 2014.    © Reuters

Striker Jong Tae Se became an enduring image of the tournament when he broke down in tears as the North Korean anthem was played at the start of the match. The Japanese Korean soccer player, who has also played in South Korea and Germany, is an engaging character who was happy to chat whenever we met in the press-filled stadium corridor that all players pass through on their way from locker room to the bus. After the Brazil game, he was swamped by international media. He loved it.

That 2010 World Cup seemed to start a new era for North Korean soccer. After losing all three games, the North Korean soccer federation realized that a way had to be found around the country's reclusiveness in order to compete internationally. A look around the region showed why. Japan and South Korea are Asia's two most successful soccer powers and they export players to Europe's best leagues and hire foreign players as well. Pyongyang was way behind. North Korea sought to make its mark on the global stage by sending CD-ROMs of its best players in action to agents whose email addresses were found on the internet. That did not work. A new way was needed.

In 2013, the Pyongyang International Football School opened. This recruited the best girls and boys from around the country and hired coaches from Spain, then the home of the world champions, to provide some of the international input that had been lacking. At the same time, the best North Korean players in the 15 and 16 age categories were sent overseas to spend a few months in Italy or Spain. Han Kwang Song was the most successful and stayed in Europe. He played in Italy's Serie A League starting in 2016 before moving to Qatar in 2020 for a reported fee of around $9 million, although his future international career appears to be in jeopardy since part of his salary is allegedly sent back to the Pyongyang regime in violation of United Nations sanctions.

These tentative steps appeared to be headed in the right direction. But North Korea has now tightly shut its borders and contacts with the outside world in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It caused North Korea to withdraw from the 2022 World Cup and the 2023 Asian Cup as well as this year's Olympics in Tokyo.

North Korea's international sports effort were dealt a severe blow as a result. Its sport federations missed out on money donated by their international counterparts to participate in these events. Had the North Korean soccer team reached the third stage of qualification for the World Cup, it would have received $2.5 million from FIFA. Its absence from the World Cup also means the team will slip down the rankings and face a harder route to future tournaments.

Turkmenistan has a similar tale. It also started to see the benefits of opening up in terms of soccer. After falling behind its central Asian neighbors Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, it decided to get some outside help in 2019. The call went out to Croatia, the European nation with a similar size population and which had made the World Cup final in 2018. Croatia sent Ante Mise, one of its top managers, to coach the national team. Croatian officials also advised on youth development, building domestic leagues and developing a business model.

It seemed to work. The results in the qualification rounds for the 2022 World Cup were good. Before the pandemic hit, Turkmenistan was top of its group in the second round, above the two Koreas, and on course for a place in the final stage, which would have been a fantastic achievement. But COVID-19 devastated the country and local games were indefinitely suspended. The Croatians went home and when the World Cup qualifications were finally resumed, Turkmenistan performed poorly.

As they retreat back into their shells, it is to be hoped that Afghanistan, North Korea and Turkmenistan remember that in sports at least, isolation is not splendid.

John Duerden is a Seoul-based writer.

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