Sat, Oct 25, 2003 - Page 18 News List

Amateur soccer players set for North Korean adventure

THE GUARDIAN , BEIJING

A team of Irish and British soccer players will set off for Pyongyang today to achieve on the pitch what diplomats have failed to do in conference halls: to bring isolated North Korea and the outside world a little closer.

Beijing Celtic will embark on the first amateur soccer tour of North Korea in what organizers hope will be a groundbreaking trip to promote friendship through the world's favorite sport.

Reflecting the peculiar circumstances of their North Korean hosts -- who have been at war for more than 50 years and are now playing a game of nuclear chicken with the US -- the expatriate side's itinerary will be very different from that of the average amateur club on tour.

After taking one of only two weekly flights from Beijing to Pyongyang they will be obliged to lay flowers at a giant statue of the country's founding father, the "Eternal General" Kim Il-sung.

The next day they will play a team from the state-run travel company and then take part in a five-a-side friendship tournament with locals and members of the small community of international aid workers and diplomats.

Quite possibly nursing hangovers from Korean beer, the 21 players, who include nine from Ireland and three from Britain, will be whisked off on their final day for an unusual spot of tourism: a trip to the demilitarized zone between North Korea and its southern rival, which was notoriously described by Bill Clinton as "the scariest place on earth."

Beijing Celtic's captain, Peter Goff, said the team were looking forward to the Pyongyang trip.

"Our players are truly excited at the prospect of playing soccer in [North Korea]," he said. "It is a culture we know very little about, but soccer breaks down cultural and linguistic barriers."

Soccer is the most popular game in North Korea, which made a big impact at the 1966 World Cup with a giant-killing run which included a victory over Italy.

The tour organizer, Nick Bonner, has made a documentary about the survivors of the 1966 team and the enthusiastic welcome they received when they made a trip back to their host city, Middlesbrough.

He said he hoped that more teams, including amateur sides from the north-east of England, would follow in the studmarks of Beijing Celtic.

"It is as neutral as you can get. We are just doing it for the humanity of it all," he said.

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