He plays like Wayne Rooney but behaves more like David Beckham. He loves his cars, his rap music and his clothes, and changes hairstyles more often than you can say "Kim Jong-il". Jong Tae-se, the striker, is not your average North Korean. Born and raised in Japan, the 26-year-old forward has never lived in communist North Korea, and says he has no plans to.
But he wears the Democratic People's Republic of Korea jersey with pride, and is moved to tears when he hears the country's anthem. The boy from Nagoya could become North Korea's biggest international soccer star since Pak Doo-ik scored the goal that knocked Italy out of the World Cup in 1966. "He is Japanese but isn't a Japanese, he is Korean but is playing on the North Korean squad, he is a North Korean national but lives in Japan - all these things are very difficult for the world to understand," Shin Mu Koeng, a friend and his biographer, said yesterday.
North Korea are back in the World Cup for the first time in 44 years. They were the mystery team in 1966, and they are the mystery team in 2010. Jong, witty and personable, with a dazzling smile, cheeky personality and talent for making goals, gives North Korea a bit of star power as they face teams from Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast that are stacked with big names. Jong is quickly becoming his team's biggest personality and most powerful asset, setting himself apart on and off the field, from his fashion sense to his playing style.
On the pitch, he is fast and aggressive, North Korea's leading scorer with 16 goals in 24 international matches. His impressive play earned him comparisons to England's Wayne Rooney among South Korean media. Born in Nagoya to an ethnic Korean family, he inherited his father's South Korean citizenship but was raised and schooled in his mother's pro-North Korean community. Jong's background sets him apart from his teammates. He says he never travels without his iPod, laptop and Nintendo, much to the curiosity of players from a country with only one state-run television channel.
But Jong has said he admires his teammates' passion for football, and that they are largely indifferent to money and materialism. "He had many doubts, but as he trained with the North Korean players, he saw their pureness," Shin said. "They were playing for their team and for victory, nothing else." On his blog, he wrote from Johannesburg that he was filled with awe for the power of football and the role he can play in the sport.
"Yesterday, I clarified a new goal and dream," he wrote. "Instead of sticking within the line of national boundaries, I'll be acclaimed in the wider world as a player who tore down such high and invisible walls." * AP