Argentina captain Lionel Messi is the most popular player among students at the Pyongyang International Football School, a fledgling facility North Korean officials hope will unearth a talent like the Barcelona great.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was the driving force behind the school, which opened in June last year, according to the nation’s Asian Football Confederation (AFC) official Han Un-gyong.
The facility caters for 200 boys and girls aged nine and above who are chasing dreams of soccer stardom.
Han, who sits on the AFC’s executive committee, said students are selected from around the country after scouting and playing in trial matches.
“All the children, they want to be good players, like Kaka and Messi, many students, they love Messi, because Messi is very honest,” Han told a small group of reporters on the sidelines of the AFC’s award ceremony in Manila. “I go to the school and I ask them who is very good, best player? They all say ‘Messi.’ They read books about Messi. Through the Internet, they can watch all the matches at the Pyongyang International School.”
She said work began on the new school in 2012, shortly after basketball-loving Kim came to power following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in late 2011.
Interest in soccer soared in North Korea after their appearance at the 2010 World Cup finals.
Han said she would love four-time World Player of the Year Messi to come and see the facility.
“Yes, why not? Yes, I want to invite him,” Han said.
What would it mean to North Korea if Messi came?
“Oh please,” she said. “Our children love him.”
If Messi did accept the invite, Han was sure he would be impressed with the work they were doing to develop soccer in North Korea.
Han’s fellow AFC executive committee member Kohzo Tashima has already given glowing reports about the school, highlighting the government support it receives and the talent of the players.
While sport takes on a higher profile in North Korea, its human rights record continues to be a source of controversy.
Last month, a UN Assembly committee dealing with human rights passed a resolution calling for the UN Security Council to consider referring North Korea to the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity.
The vote followed a UN Commission of Inquiry report published in February detailing wide-ranging abuses in North Korea, including prison camps, systematic torture, starvation and killings comparable to Nazi-era atrocities.
North Korea has dismissed the UN move as part of a US-led plot to destroy its political system.
Han’s attention is focused on North Korea’s participation at the Asian Cup finals in Australia next month, though she is not sure how far her side, currently ranked 137th by world governing body FIFA, will do.
The North have only reached the finals of the continental showpiece three times, twice getting knocked out in the group stage and achieving their best result of fourth in 1980.
They have been drawn against China, Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia in Group B and Han would not rule out a shock first title for the North.
“All the teams try, [but] I hope so,” Han said.
“You will see the new players. They are good. We choose young players,” she added, without giving names.
New talent is also emerging on the women’s team, but they will miss out on next year’s World Cup finals after FIFA banned five players following positive doping tests at the 2011 edition.
“We cannot compete next year, but maybe the next World Cup you can see, because more people play women’s football. I know these Korean ladies will try,” she said. “We will be strong enough to challenge [for the title], because the under-17, under-20 [teams] are very good.”
World No. 1 Tai Tzu-ying yesterday eased past her Thai opponent to advance to the second round of the Toyota Thailand Open. The Taiwanese star toppled world No. 46 Supanida Katethong 21-16, 21-11 in 29 minutes at the Impact Arena in Bangkok. “I think I played OK today. I am feeling a little better than last week,” Tai said. Tomorrow, Tai faces Indonesia’s Gregoria Mariska Tunjung. The two have faced each other six times, with Tai beating the world No. 21 in all six matches. Tai on Sunday reached the final of the Yonex Thailand Open before losing decisively against Carolina Marin of Spain.
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