12 title matches, 37 goals, one champion. The Unofficial Football World Championships in 2012 belonged to only one team. Undefeated throughout the year, North Korea (some say DPR Korea) saw off all challengers with a series of impressively solid performances, illuminated by occasional flashes of skill and flair, to remain Unofficial Football World Champions.
In the 140th year of international football, the UFWC took us to places few football fans have been before. Since the first international match, between Scotland and England in 1872, the UFWC title has been passed between 42 champions via more than 800 title matches. In 2012, while the majority of the footballing world concentrated on the European Championships and the Olympics, the UFWC focussed mainly on lesser-known teams from Asia. If you enjoy taking an alternative look at football, the UFWC in 2012 was the place to be.
The North Korean national football team is nicknamed ‘the Chollima’ after a fabled winged horse, so it was perhaps fitting that they should dominate the UFWC in the year that the country’s official state news agency reported the discovery of an actual unicorn’s lair. (The apparently erroneous report was later blamed on a mistranslation.) Thankfully, the UFWC successes of the North Korean team this year provided us with a more accurate glimpse inside the isolated state.
Do the North Koreans even know they are Unofficial Football World Champions? Well, yes, some of them do. (The ones who are on Twitter, anyway.) And wherever the team have played this year, they’ve been followed by a small but enthusiastic group of supporters. It seems that some North Koreans aren’t as insular as their Government might want them to be. Certainly their footballers have been positive ambassadors for their country. Away from politics, on the great leveller of the football field, North Korea are Unofficial Champions on merit.
The Chollima had taken the UFWC title from previous holders Japan back in November 2011. Their defence of the title began in February, with a friendly against Kuwait, followed by a World Cup qualifier against Tajikistan. Both matches finished 1-1. Then, in March, the action switched to Kathmandu, Nepal, where the Chollima participated in the AFC Challenge Cup. The tournament is intended for ‘emerging’ football nations, and North Korea are officially classed as ‘developed’. They were reigning Challenge Cup champions, and were favourites to retain their title. They didn’t disappoint.
North Korea cruised through the tournament’s group stage, beating the Philippines 2-0, Tajikistan (again) 2-0, and India 4-0. Attacking midfielder Pak Nam-Chol scored in all three matches, and was the Chollima’s star man throughout the year – a skilful and creative player whose hard work drove the team forward. For the semi final, North Korea were boosted by the late arrival at the tournament of 19-year-old Pak Kwang-Ryong of Basel, the only North Korean to have played in the UEFA Champions League. The young striker scored both goals in a 2-0 win that sent his team through to the AFC Challenge Cup Final.The opposition was Turkmenistan – easily the toughest team North Korea had faced during their UFWC reign. And within two minutes the Chollima were behind, with Turkmenistan captain Berdy Shamuradov rifling the ball past keeper Ri Myong-Guk. North Korea were rattled, but they fought back, and the hugely influential Pak Nam-Chol eventually created an equaliser, brilliantly finding space on the left to whip in an excellent cross for Jong Il-Gwang to head home.
The score remained 1-1 into the second half, and, with both teams struggling to create clear chances, the match looked to be heading to extra time. Then, remarkably, the game burst back into life with two penalties within the last five minutes. First, Turkmenistan’s star man Arslanmyrat Amanov was fouled in the area by Jang Song-Hyok. Shamuradov stepped up to take the penalty, but he blasted his shot well over the bar.
Then, North Korea went straight up the field and won their own penalty, with big Pak Kwang-Ryong being clumsily pushed over. Jang Song-Hyok was given the chance to atone for his earlier error, and he confidently smashed the ball into the bottom left corner of the goal. He raced away, arms aloft in celebration, followed by his team-mates. 2-1 to North Korea, and the Chollima had retained both the UFWC title and AFC Challenge Cup. The result also meant that North Korea qualified for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia.
There were remarkable scenes of celebration, as the North Koreans leapt in the air, and hugged and grinned. They waved to cheering fans in the crowd, who chanted ‘Ko-re-a, Ko-re-a.’ The players then picked up coach Yun Chong-Su and repeatedly bumped him up in the air in celebration. Victorious captain Ri Kwang Chon lifted the trophy above his head, as the PA played ‘We Are The Champions’ by Queen.After a very long summer break, North Korea finally resumed their UFWC defence in September with a friendly match against Indonesia. The Chollima won 2-0. A couple of subsequent fixtures were cancelled (including a hotly-anticipated clash with Iran) before December delivered a mini football feast in the shape of the EAFF East Asian Cup semi final competition. This five-team league format tournament took place over nine days in Hong Kong. The team that finished at the top of the league would qualify for the EAFF East Asian Cup Finals in South Korea in 2013.
North Korea began the tournament by thrashing Chinese Taipei (the sporting name for Taiwan) 6-1, then hammered Guam 5-0. Striker Ri Myong-Jun scored twice in each game, and Pak Nam-Chol and An Il-Bom both scored a goal in each. A match against Australia saw the Chollima fall behind to a first half goal from Archie Thompson. However, North Korean midfielder An Yong-Hak’s 64th-minute goal secured a draw against the Socceroos and retained the title, breaking the hearts of many Australian UFWC fans.
North Korea’s final match of the tournament – and of 2012 – was against hosts Hong Kong. The Chollima won 4-0, with the goalscorers including both Pak Nam-Chols (the excellent midfielder and the quite good defender). North Korea had won three and drawn one of their four EAFF semi final matches, scoring a massive 16 goals. However, that goalscoring feat was surpassed by Australia, who scored 19 and finished at the top of the table on goal difference, claiming the only available qualifying place for the 2013 EAFF Finals ahead of North Korea.
Most importantly for UFWC followers, however, in remaining unbeaten throughout 2012, North Korea remain Unofficial Football World Champions. They won nine of their 12 title matches and drew three, scoring 32 goals and conceding just five. The full list of UFWC title match results for 2012 is as follows (click for match reports):
09/12/12 HONG KONG 0-4 NORTH KOREA, EAFF, Hong Kong
05/12/12 NORTH KOREA 1-1 AUSTRALIA, EAFF, Hong Kong
03/12/12 NORTH KOREA 5-0 GUAM, EAFF, Hong Kong
01/12/12 CHINESE TAIPEI 1-6 NORTH KOREA, EAFF, Hong Kong
10/09/12 INDONESIA 0-2 NORTH KOREA FR, Surabaya
19/03/12 TURKMENISTAN 1-2 NORTH KOREA ACC Kathmandu, Nepal
16/03/12 NORTH KOREA 2-0 PALESTINE ACC Kathmandu, Nepal
13/03/12 NORTH KOREA 4-0 INDIA ACC Kathmandu, Nepal
11/03/12 TAJIKISTAN 0-2 NORTH KOREA ACC Kathmandu, Nepal
09/03/12 NORTH KOREA 2-0 PHILIPPINES ACC Kathmandu, Nepal
29/02/12 TAJIKISTAN 1-1 NORTH KOREA WQ Khujand
17/02/12 NORTH KOREA 1-1 KUWAIT FR Changsha, China
The Chollima’s nine title match wins also propelled the team up the UFWC all-time rankings table, from 42nd place to 20th, with a total of 10 ranking points. (In terms of FIFA rankings, North Korea reached the top 100 this year, and are now sitting in 99th place.) The UFWC all-time top 20 rankings table for the end of 2012 reads:
1 SCOTLAND 86
2 ENGLAND 73
3 ARGENTINA 51
4 NETHERLANDS 49
5 RUSSIA 41
6 BRAZIL 29
7 GERMANY 277 ITALY 27
9 SWEDEN 26
10 FRANCE 25
11 HUNGARY 17
11 SPAIN 17
13 URUGUAY 16
14 CZECH REP 1515 AUSTRIA 12
15 WALES 12
17 CHILE 11
17 GREECE 11
17 JAPAN 11
20 NORTH KOREA 10
20 SWITZERLAND 10
North Korea currently have no official fixtures lined up, so we must wait to see what 2013 has in store. It has been reported that they have been invited to participate in the 2013 Kings Cup tournament in Thailand at the end of January. However, previous tournaments have featured under-23 and reserve sides, and there is no official confirmation at the time of writing that North Korea’s ‘A’ team will participate.
According to FIFA, North Korea have no competitive fixtures lined up until 2015 (they failed to qualify for the World Cup and are excluded from future AFC Challenge Cups due to their increased status), so the next UFWC title match could well be a friendly. North Korea don’t tend to play a lot of friendly matches, but the improving team has picked up a lot of momentum over the past year, and it seems likely that the country will be keen to play more football in the near future. Certainly, it would be a shame if the team was ‘mothballed’ until the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, both for the North Korean players, and of course for UFWC fans.
Away from the football, this year the UFWC book, Unofficial Football World Champions, was released on Kindle. The book, which was originally released in paperback last year, traces the history of the UFWC from the very first international match in 1872 via more than 800 title matches, involving legendary teams and footballing minnows, classic finals and forgotten friendlies, celebrated players and unsung heroes. You can find more information and get a free sample here.
We also launched a new range of UFWC T-shirts, including a popular ‘DPRK UFWC’ North Korea shirt, plus new England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and Japan shirts, new women’s and kids’ shirts, and updated classic UFWC Ts. You can check out the full range at the UFWC T-Shirt Store.
We don’t have a clue what will happen in 2013, which is pretty much how we like the UFWC to operate. When will North Korea next play a title match, and who will be the opponents? Can the Chollima retain their title, or will a challenger become Unofficial Football World Champions? Where will the UFWC title be this time next year – still in North Korea, still in Asia, or somewhere else entirely? We hope you’ll stick around to find out.