The Global Game

Enigmatic Korea DPR and their distinctive football achievements

Anniversary of the 2007 inter-Korean summit, Oct 5, 2018 : North Koreans perform the large-scale gymnastic and artistic show at the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea
© imago images
  • Korea DPR were the original FIFA World Cup giant-killers
  • The country is home to the biggest football stadium on the planet
  • World’s most successful women’s football nation at youth level

There are few more intriguing nations in the world than the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The nation maintains limited contact to the outside world and, with tourism rare, Korea DPR - or North Korea as it is commonly known - remains something of an enigma.

Yet for many across the globe, it is football that is a reference point. Indeed, Korea DPR has carved out a somewhat unique niche for itself in the world game, via the FIFA World Cup™ and especially, women’s football. The capital, Pyongyang, even boasts what is considered the largest football stadium on the planet.

Korea DPR’s early exploits on the world stage remain their most famous. The first non-European or South American nation post WWII to win through to the knockout stage of the World Cup, they became the original giant-killers at England 1966 .

After a 1-0 win over two-time world champions Italy, only the genius of Eusebio secured Portugal a famous comeback victory and denied Korea DPR a barely believable spot in the semi-finals. It wasn’t until Morocco at Mexico 1986 that a nation from outside Europe or the Americas again progressed from the first stage of a World Cup.

Football in Korea DPR

DPR Football Association founded: 1945
Number of senior clubs: 53
Number of senior players: 2,712 (male 1,483; female 1,229)
Three national league divisions for men and women

The capital Pyongyang is the central hub for football and is home to the national association and technical centre. However, it is a string of stadiums – headed by the awe-inspiring May Day Stadium – that underline the capital’s football status.

With an incredible seating capacity of 150,000, the May Day Stadium is the largest in the world and one of the largest arenas in the history of the world. A football pitch is surrounded by an athletics track, but the stadium is best known for the Arirang Festival, a mass gymnastics and artistic festival.

The history of the Kim Il-sung Stadium dates all the way back to 1926 and it, along with the Yanggakdo Stadium have also hosted international matches.

Korea DPR have made their most noteworthy impact in women’s football. Quarter-finalists at the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup™, Korea DPR also won three AFC Women’s Asian Cup titles in that period as the Eastern Azaleas threatened to become a true global heavyweight.

Recent years, however, have not been so kind and the team were eliminated in the opening round of Asian qualifying for France 2019 by neighbours Korea Republic.

It is at youth level where Korea DPR have become the embodiment of quality and consistency. Korea DPR won the very first edition of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in 2008, and one further success followed. Add in two FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cups - the most recent in 2016 - and the nation’s youth team have garnered more world titles than any other nation, the likes of Germany and USA included.

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