Jong Tae-Se reflects on fair play, the challenges faced by the North Korean national team, and their recent matchup against Japan

In his latest monthly column for, the striker offers his thoughts on North Korea's recent World Cup qualifier matches at Uzbekistan and against historical rivals Japan
By Jong Tae-Se
Translation by Dan Orlowitz

I've really had to think about a lot of things during this round of World Cup qualifying.

First let's talk about the match at Uzbekistan.

It was a huge shock. Because we can't advance to the World Cup final, there's no greater disappointment. I probably won't understand just how much we've lost until I watch the final round of qualifiers and the tournament itself on TV. It's very discouraging.

One thing I realised during the match was about officiating in international fixtures. I really think that we have more than 11 opponents on the pitch. When Uzbekistan scored a goal or came onto our side, the referee's whistle seemed to support them a lot. I understand that it's an away match and these things happen, but it really made me wonder what "Fair Play" really is. I think this trend has escalated in recent years. Sometimes I think "what are sports about?"

Fifa pushes the idea of “fair play,” but there's a strong wind blowing against countries with developing teams. For example, this time we were put into the fourth pot for seeding. The final round of qualifying for 2010, South Africa, the Asia Cup, this round of qualifying… the list goes on. We've been put in the "Group of Death" four times in a row. It feels like they're trying to stop us from progressing. North Korea has problems of our own, but with the footballing world dealing with many such problems I worry about the sport's future. As a national team player, I want an environment where I can play to my best abilities.

After we were knocked out of the competition came the Japan match; a lot of emotions came to the surface for me.

If you consider the historical background, it wasn't hard to see that this match would have many political implications for both sides.  I'm not trying to boast about the win, but after the match there were many comments on Twitter, and one couldn't help but be angry at some of the media reports.

I'm happy that we won, and there was a lot of rough play, but under the rules of football it was generally a fair fight. Regarding the referee, even though we were judged pretty harshly, I thought he was very fair.

Naturally, I'm also very upset about the booing of the Japanese national anthem. I've been in a relatively large number of international matches. For Asian Champions League and international fixtures I've been to many countries, and booing of the national anthem often happens. But I don't want sports and politics to be jumbled together. I won't say I don't understand the feelings of the fans in the stadium on that day, but it's something that absolutely has to be fixed in order to develop North Korean football.

The players obviously have their own politically-based motivation, but I think we won because we didn't want to lose and we showed it on the field.

When I play soccer, I don't think it's wrong to have that motivation. That's one part of playing for your national team. Diego Maradona hates England even now, I’ve heard! So keeping in mind the history between your two countries and playing hard against the players wearing their flag is no problem. Football is often compared to war, but it's still a sport. There are some countries that have forgotten this and practically turned games into hand-to-hand combat.

"The players obviously have their own politically-based motivation, but I think we won because we didn't want to lose and we showed it on the field"

- Jong on the qualifier against Japan

But this time, aside from one sliding tackle against Atsuto Uchida, North Korea fought with football. We didn't want to lose to Japan, and instead of showing that with rough play we showed it with our football skills. Because we've been knocked out of the competition there were a lot of plays you wouldn't normally see in a league match, but that's hardly unusual in global competition. In Japan they say "this is a match that can't be lost," and this was the case.

However, I think that "rough play used to disrupt the match" and "intense play used to win the match" are two different things. I think if you look at this match from an unbiased perspective, North Korea used the latter, and I'm proud of them for that.

Personally this was the first time I was substituted in the first half, so honestly it was a bit disgraceful for me as a player. Maybe it's because I've grown up a bit lately, but I didn't show it on my face, shook hands with my manager and sat down on the bench. But then as I watched my team-mates go for the win, I was really touched by their tenacity and sense of unity. I wanted to be on the field too, but I was both moved and disappointed by the fact that there were other players who performed better than I could have.

This time we were the winners, but obviously I don't think we've caught up to Japan's level yet. There's a lot of things we have to improve, and the difference in our strength is clear. This time we took three points through the mental side, but you can't win with fighting spirit alone, and that's evident in our elimination from qualifying.

It's a failure of leadership to say that you can persevere if only your spirit is strong enough. I sympathise with kids and members of the ‘Golden Generation’ who were only taught that.

In the end, your mental state is important.  But you also have to make a base, and add your emotions to that base. Like Japan, we learned a lot of things in this match. I want us to grow until we're considered one of the champions of Asia, and I want to contribute to that.

Anyway now that World Cup qualifiers are over for this year, all I can do is to focus on stepping up my play for my club team.

From now on I'll focus on Bochum, and run for the top at full speed!

This is the latest in a monthly series of journals written by Bochum and North Korean striker Jong Tae-Se exclusively for You can read previous editions here and here.

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