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The small Brazilian club that outsmarted North Korea – ‘They would have been upset if we had succeeded’

Everyone seems to have a slightly different estimate of how many people were outside the stadium on that strange November afternoon, but the consensus is that it was a lot.

As the bus crept through the crowd, the Brazilian footballers on board stared out of the windows. Locals — tens of thousands of them, on some accounts — flooded the streets. Most greeted the bus with diffident waves. A few ran alongside, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone they would not have recognised anyway.

An hour later, those same footballers walked through a long underground tunnel, up a flight of stairs, and out onto the pitch. They lined up in front of the dugout and sang Brazil’s national anthem.

The match that began moments thereafter took place in 2009, but you would never know it from the photographs. There is an austere, monochrome quality to the images, and not just because they were captured on a basic digital camera. There are no advertising hoardings and none of the other hypercapitalist trappings that adorn the modern game. As a result, it looks a lot like pre-war football.

Then there are the stands, which are packed but oddly lifeless; these appear to be spectators rather than supporters. There is also a jarring uniformity to them, which starts to make sense once the context becomes clear.

One picture, taken before kick-off, shows an outmoded electronic scoreboard. It reads “PRK 0-0 BRA”. That’s North Korea vs Brazil.

The game was played in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. The home team represented the most closed-off nation in the world, a military dictatorship which has been shrouded in mystery for decades. The away team? That’s where things get even more complicated.

North Korea hosting Brazil at the Kim Il-Sung Stadium would have been a major geopolitical event. You would have heard about it if it had happened, which it didn’t.

But something even more unlikely did.

The team billed as ‘Brazil’ were, in fact, a tiny club side from a satellite town 80 kilometres north west of Sao Paulo. Theirs was a squad of journeymen and part-timers, none of whom could believe their eyes when they walked out of the tunnel and looked up at the scoreboard.

“It was clear that the North Korean regime wanted the word ‘Brazil’ to appear there,” says Waldir Cipriani, one of the organisers of the match. “But we were just a Brazilian team who wore yellow.”

The ReverendFifteen years ago, there were two football teams in Sorocaba. The most historic was Sao Bento, whose greatest claim to fame was reaching the last 16 of the Brazilian championship back in 1979.

Their neighbours, Atletico Sorocaba, had only been around since the early 1990s and had never made it higher than the third division nationally. Their matches — low-level affairs in the regional leagues, mainly — rarely drew more than a couple of thousand fans.

If the very notion of a Brazilian club team landing an away fixture against North Korea seems a bit far-fetched, the idea of that team being Atletico Sorocaba… well, we’re so far into the realm of the absurd that we’re going to need a map to get out again. That, though, is exactly what happened.

To understand how and why, we need to go back to the early 2000s when Atletico were acquired by a South Korean investment group led by Sun Myung Moon — or, to his friends and followers, ‘Reverend Moon’.

Moon was the founder of the Unification Church, a religious movement that stressed the importance of the family and proclaimed Moon himself to be the second coming of Christ. To call the church controversial would be to undersell it; the ‘Criticisms’ section of its Wikipedia page runs to 7,000 words. Moon, who died in 2012, was found guilty of tax fraud by a United States federal grand jury in 1982, spending 13 months in prison.

Atletico Sorocaba was not Moon’s first incursion into Brazil. After growing disenchanted with the U.S. — “the country that represents Satan’s harvest… the kingdom of extreme individuality, of free sex” — he acquired 85,000 hectares of land in Mato Grosso do Sul state in the 1990s. He planned to create a model community in the town of Jardim, on the border with Paraguay. According to news reports in Brazil, thousands of South Koreans relocated to the region at his behest.

As the Unification Church expanded, Sorocaba — around 100km from Sao Paulo and with a population of around a million — was seen as a useful staging post. It was Cipriani, a prominent figure within the church structure in Brazil, who recommended that Moon buy Atletico. Cipriani subsequently became the club’s vice president.

“Reverend Moon invested in football because he had a vision,” Cipriani tells The Athletic. “He believed that football was the cure for human hatred. He used to say that you forget about your enemy when you’re running after a ball. That was why he wanted to promote it.

“He especially liked the characteristics of Brazilian football — the playfulness, the love of dribbling. He believed that Brazilian football would help him. He saw it as a force for peace.”

Whatever Moon’s motivations, he could not be accused of thinking small. His largesse allowed Atletico to renovate their training complex and the result was so impressive that Algeria would later choose it as their base for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Atletico would play numerous games in South Korea over the years, despite their relative irrelevance on their own domestic scene.

North Korea, though? That was another level entirely. No team from outside the Asian Football Confederation had ever played there.

Atletico Sorocaba opening that door owed, mainly, to two factors. The first was North Korea’s qualification for the 2010 World Cup. A team that had had little motivation to leave its bubble in 43 years — their previous World Cup appearance had been in 1966 — now needed a crash course in the global game.

“North Korea were interested in getting experience of Latin American football,” explains Cipriani. “There was this pressure from the government, who wanted the team to do well at the tournament. The team performing well was going to be good for the country.

“This was just one month before the final draw. They had been trying to organise friendlies, but which other country was going to go to the effort of going to North Korea, sorting out all the visas, for 90 minutes of football?”

Enter Moon, whose background provided motive and opportunity. Moon was born in 1920 in what would become North Korea. He was imprisoned in a North Korean labour camp for two years in 1948, only moving to South Korea after being liberated by United Nations troops during the Korean War. As a result of his experiences, Moon was staunchly opposed to communism — “especially atheistic Marxism,” says Cipriani — but still cultivated links with Kim Il-sung, the supreme leader of North Korea between 1948 and 1994.

“I learnt the essence of Christianity from him,” says Cipriani. “People speak a lot about loving your enemy, but you have to put it into practice. His teaching was to love your enemy, but hate the thing that makes him your enemy — love the ill, hate the illness. Reverend Moon was anti-communism, but not anti-communist.

“When Reverend Moon went to Pyongyang, it was after being invited by Kim Il-sung, who had spent 40 years trying to kill him. Before he died, Kim Il-sung authorised Reverend Moon to build a car factory and acquire a five-star hotel (in North Korea). So in practice, due to that relationship, we had great contacts in the North Korean ministry of sport.”

Those connections bore fruit in 2009, against a favourable diplomatic backdrop.

“Brazil was in a honeymoon period with North Korea,” says Cipriani. “Lula da Silva (Brazil’s president at the time) had opened an embassy there earlier in the year and the ambassador liked socialism. We never discussed it because he showed us a lot of hospitality. We left out the politics and the ideology. Our objectives were sporting and diplomatic. We were there to build bridges. That was Reverend Moon’s aim.”

It is impossible to know whether Moon’s opportunism was truly in service of improved relations between North Korea and Brazil, or if peace was just a byproduct of an eccentric plan hatched by an even more eccentric figure.

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