From atop the Arch of Triumph, a monument of much pride for North Korea, one of the officials who guided me around my ten-day stay in the most closed-off country in the world directed my attention to the grand stadium directly in front, for two reasons:
“In this stadium, our Eternal President made his first speech after liberating the Korean people from Japanese imperialists. Oh, and it was also there that Brazil played against our national football team. You must have heard about that match. It was very good. I was there.”
It was September 2017. I had entered North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) with government permission for a visit that would result in a series of articles and my third book, The Hermit Kingdom. Among the conditions to receive a visa for North Korea was agreeing to the permanent surveillance of three guides and relinquishing any control over my choice of hotel, dates of stay, and my itinerary. Everything was orchestrated so that I would only see and register exactly what the North Korean regime allowed me to see.
Put simply, the plan was to show all of the positives of the country so that I could relay this to the ‘outside world.’
This state propaganda tour included a trip to the Arch of Triumph and the 50,000-seater Kim Il-sung Stadium, the second-largest arena in capital city Pyongyang. It was there that, at least according to North Koreans, the national football team played Brazil in a 2009 friendly match, in preparation for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. In what was considered a major coup for the government, they had managed to attract the legendary Brazilian national side to Pyongyang — or, at least, so they thought.
Football in North Korea
Built in 1926, the Kim Il-sung Stadium hosted North Korea’s major football matches up until the 1950s, until it was destroyed by U.S. bombs in the Korean War. But, as the arena was a symbol of the “revolution,” it was completely rebuilt after the war and reopened in 1969, under the name Moranbong Stadium. After another renovation in 1982, making the facilities more modern, it was renamed the Kim Il-Sung Stadium, stage of the supposed historic match between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Brazil.
The day before my visit to the Arch of Triumph, the stadium hosted a key Asian Cup qualifying match between North Korea and Lebanon, which ended in a 2-2 draw. I was able to watch the game on North Korean state television, which had not broadcasted the match live. The cameras showed an impeccable green pitch and stands packed with red-shirted fans. The home support was very disciplined, not carrying any flags or banners, and they did not leave their seats at any point, nor did they jeer the opponents.
The only noise from the crowd were loud and united shouts of “ooh!” every time the home side constructed a threatening attack, and applause for impressive plays or North Korean goals. When Lebanon had the ball, the stadium descended into complete silence. I had asked to watch the game live, in the stadium, but my guides said it was impossible, as it wasn’t on my schedule.
And it was here, in the Kim Il-sung Stadium, that North Korea played the fabled friendly against Brazil. But it wasn’t quite the Brazilian national team — North Korea’s opponents on that day were actually Atlético Sorocaba, a small pro side playing in the second division São Paulo state championships.
The arrival of ‘Brazil’
This odd sporting event in the world’s most closed-off country was actually orchestrated by Sun Myung Moon, the Korean religious leader best known as Reverend Moon, who founded the Church of Unification in the 1950s. The church was particularly prominent in Brazil, especially in the 1990s, when Reverend Moon bought more than 80,000 hectares of land in the interior of Mato Grosso do Sul state, taking hundreds of followers with him. He then expanded his business, buying car factories, broadcasters, and investing significant sums of money into two football teams: Clube Esportivo Nova Esperança (CENE, from the reverend’s ranch in Mato Grosso do Sul), and Atlético Sorocaba.
Flown over to Pyongyang, Atlético Sorocaba’s delegation went through the same situation I did eight years later. Upon arrival, all players and staff had their phones and passports confiscated, before being whisked off to a monument in tribute of Kim Il-Sung, where a club representative left flowers, and players paid homage. In the days that followed, every move that the delegation made was under the watchful eye of government-appointed bodyguards, and they visited many of the same sites I would be taken to in 2017.
With the country having failed to qualify for a World Cup in 44 years, the North Korean fans were ecstatic to see their country’s first match against Brazil — expecting to see the five-time world champions, home of legends such as Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Pelé. Amid the buzz, 80,000 fans squeezed into the stadium, with another 30,000 milling around outside, watching the match on a large screen, none the wiser that their opponents were a tiny club team who weren’t even big enough to play in Brazil’s national league.
The big match
The Brazilian players, speaking about the match afterward, were surprised by the behavior of the fans — the same shouts of “ooh!” when the home side attacked, and the complete silence whenever “Brazil” had possession. The game ended in a 0-0 draw, and upon returning to Sorocaba, the players and staff claimed they avoided winning out of fear of punishment from the North Korean regime.
“It was a difficult game. Our delegation was only 30 people, it was just us against an entire country, and we had no idea what was going on, or what could happen. The atmosphere in the game was tense,” said Atlético Sorocaba’s starting goalkeeper, Klayton Scudeler. “But when you get on the pitch, you forget it, you want to win. I think the result was good for both sides.
The manager of the Brazilian side, Edu Marangon, explained how the home fans may have been tricked into thinking they were playing the Brazilian national side. “The scoreboard had us down as Brazil. Atlético Sorocaba’s colors are red and yellow, but as North Korea play in red, we wore a yellow strip, and they thought we were the Brazilian national team,” he said, in an interview with news website UOL. The locals were so convinced that a crowd followed the Atlético Sorocaba team bus to the stadium, greeting the middling São Paulo side with chants of “Brazil! Brazil!”
There was some suspicion that this whole “mix up” was premeditated by the North Korean government. The following year, in South Africa, the real Brazilian national team faced North Korea in their opening group match of the World Cup. Brazil won 2-1, a result celebrated by Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and his advisors.
Atlético Sorocaba’s Asian odyssey didn’t end there, however, and the club ended up making another four trips to North Korea, before the team folded in 2016, four years after Reverend Moon’s death, which spelled the end of his sizable investments in the provincial side.