Undaunted by sanctions and hard realities on the pitch, North Korea’s lone football academy has set its sights high on producing players better than Lionel Messi, and teams that can dominate the world.
They are lofty goals for a country whose men’s side is currently ranked 126th in the Fifa rankings, sandwiched between Armenia and Ethiopia and — more gallingly — way below regional rivals South Korea, Japan and China.
But sporting success is a valuable propaganda tool and at the Pyongyang International Football School, which opened in 2013, coach Ri Yu-Il insists the sky’s the limit.
“We are training our students to become super-talented players who can surpass the skills of people like Lionel Messi,” said Ri, referring to the Barcelona superstar regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all time.
“For now, I think we should dominate Asia and, in the near future, I hope that we will achieve global dominance.”
North Korea’s finest hour was back in 1966, when — with Ri’s father, Ri Chang-Myung, in goal — they stunned mighty Italy 1-0 to reach the World Cup quarter-finals.
It was another 44 years before North Korea returned to the sport’s biggest stage at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where they lost all three of their group games.
In the circumstances, producing players of Messi’s standard is a stretch but 200 live-in students aged from nine to 15 — 40 per cent of them girls — are doing their best at the Pyongyang academy.
Many of the training drills are familiar, but some activities are unusual, like the children’s tightly choreographed, formation ball-skills set to music which form part of the academy’s publicity material.
When they are not playing on the artificial pitches, the students take lessons in classrooms adorned with pictures of North Korea’s late leaders.
Despite the academy’s efforts, the men’s national team manager, Norwegian-born Jorn Andersen, has said they won’t be turning out any global stars just yet.
“No, I don’t think they can make a Lionel Messi, but I think they can make good players for Asia,” Andersen told AFP in an interview.
“There are many talented players, but they always have to stay inside the country. They can’t go out.
“When they are always playing inside (North Korea), it’s difficult to create better players.”
North Korea have had their share of controversies and were barred from last year’s women’s World Cup after five players failed drugs tests at the previous edition in 2011.
The team doctor at the time blamed the test results on a “Chinese remedy” made from musk deer glands to treat players who had been struck by lightning.
Last week, North Korea’s under-16 goalkeeper Jang Paek-Ho was fined and banned for a year for deliberately letting in a goal kick from his Uzbek opposite number, a comical incident which went viral.