First British Player To Play Abroad Assignment

Ri Myong-guk, 26, footballer

Born in Pyongyang, 9 September 1986

The Cup Final in North Korea is unlike those elsewhere. Half the stadium’s seats are assigned to civilians – who in summer all wear white hats, white shirts and red ties – while the other half is allocated to the military. Match marshals control the crowd with flags, instructing them to chant or applaud with wooden mitten clappers. Players play clean, without histrionics, high fives or faked injuries. After every goal the crowd claps in unison and – if the Supreme Leader is present – the whole of the scoring team rushes forward to stand before him and salute. In league matches live music is played by a military band. No advertisements encircle the pitch. There are no queues, hotdog stands or programme sellers. The press corps number no more than three cameramen who idle behind the goal’s net.

"All my family are sportsmen," said Ri Myong-guk. "Both my father and uncle were goalies in our national team. My mother is a volleyball champion. My older brother is a footballer as well." Born on the 42nd anniversary of the founding of the republic, the national team’s captain is lean, light and quick on his feet. "At school I played defence," he continued. "At one game the usual goalie was ill, and the coach asked me to take his place. Luckily I played well and our team won. Since then I haven’t looked back."

At the age of 19, he was selected by Pyongyang City, one of the country’s premier clubs. Two years later, he was drafted onto the national team, which then qualified for the 2010 World Cup. "That was the proudest moment of my life," he recalled. "Since I was a boy, I’d always wanted to play for our country. But we hadn’t qualified in 44 years, until 2010. It was like a dream come true."

[Qualifying for the 2010 World Cup] was the proudest moment of my life. It was like a dream come true.

For the first time in many of their lives, the young players were permitted to travel abroad. In South Africa, they faced Brazil and then Portugal, two of the world’s top teams in the so-called ‘group of death’. Their head coach Kim Jong-hun told the media that the Dear Leader himself gave "regular tactical advice during matches" via "mobile phones that are not visible to the naked eye". Nevertheless the team lost both matches. "We were welcomed home with great warmth," enthused Ri Myong-guk, countering the accusation that the coach had been publicly humiliated by government officials on their return. Since then, Ri Myong-guk has played over 60 games with the national team.

At Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Stadium, in the shadow of the vast and heavy Arch of Triumph, the national team prepared for its upcoming friendly against Kuwait. Dressed in red kit, they rushed forward in attack, fell back in defence, practised headers and corner kicks. The manager barked instructions, then called the team together to deliver tactics and technique. Around the edge of the AstroTurf circled other managers and minders, filing reports on mobile phones and taking notes.

Ri Myong-guk’s favourite European club is Manchester United, whose former player Edwin van der Sar is among his favourite goalkeepers, along with Real Madrid’s Iker Casillas. The attacker he fears most is Cristiano Ronaldo. Foreign football matches are often rebroadcast in North Korea weeks or months after the event.

We were welcomed home with great warmth

"Please excuse me if I do not talk for long," he said, drawing the interview to its end. "I must prepare for next week’s game."

At the edge of the field, Pyongyang’s junior teams were training for their local matches. One of the youngsters paused to catch his breath and watch his hero Ri Myong-guk save half a dozen shots on goal.

"When I grow up I want to be goalkeeper like Ri Myong-guk," said the wide-eyed nine-year-old. "I must practise hard so as to make my contribution to the Korean people’s struggle toward victorious nationhood," he added.

© Rory MacLean and the British Council

This profile appears in 'Above the Line: People and Places in the DPRK (North Korea)', published by the British Council. Pictures and profiles will be exhibited at the British Council from 13 May-25 July 2014

THE LIST: Sportsmail's top 50 British footballers to play abroad

By Sportsmail Reporter
Updated: 18:37 GMT, 29 April 2009

David Beckham has won his battle to extend his loan at AC Milan after making an impressive start to his career in Italy.

The England international has also played for Real Madrid and LA Galaxy but where does he rank against other British footballers to play abroad?

In our latest offering of The List series, we are on the search for the most successful stars to try their luck overseas - today we reveal numbers 30-21, with the best players at home not always having the best time abroad.

Do you agree with our top 50? And who would top your list? Make sure you have your say on our debate pages or in the comments section at the bottom of the page. And be sure to check out The Alternative List, put together by our friends at Championship Manager...

SPORTSMAIL'S best British footballers to play abroad - numbers 10-1...

10. David Beckham (Real Madrid, LA Galaxy, AC Milan)

9. Paul Lambert (Borussia Dortmund)

8. Trevor Francis (Sampdoria, Atalanta)

7. Graeme Souness (Sampdoria)

6. David Platt (Bari, Juventus, Sampdoria)

5. Chris Waddle (Marseille)

4. Steve McManaman (Real Madrid)

3. Gary Lineker (Barcelona, Grampus Eight)

2. Kevin Keegan (Hamburg)

1. John Charles (Juventus, Roma)


Sportsmail's top 50 all-time managers in Britain

Sportsmail's top 50 goal poachers

Sportsmail's top 50 footballing traitors

Sportsmail's top 50 goalkeepers

Sportsmail's top 50 wingers

Sportsmail's top 50 FA Cup heroes

No 10: David Beckham joined Real Madrid in 2003 and spent for years at the Bernabeu winning La Liga in his final year before moving to LA Galaxy. Recently impressed during a loan move to AC Milan

No 9: Paul Lambert moved to Borussia Dortmund in 1996 helping them to win the Champions League in 1997, becoming the first Brit to win
the tournament

No 8: Trevor Francis scored seven goals in 14 games in his first season with Sampdoria and won the Coppa Italia before moving to Atalanta

No 7: Graeme Souness left Liverpool in 1984 joining Trevor Francis at Sampdoria to win the Coppa Italia, he left Italy in 1986 to become player-manager at Rangers

No 6: David Platt had four successful years in Italy after joining Bari in 1991 he won the UEFA Cup with Juventus in 1993 and then the Coppa Italia with Sampdoria in 1994

No 5: Chris Waddle was voted second best Marseille player of the century in 1998 behind Jean Pierre Papin. Won three French titles with the club and was a European Cup runner-up
in 1991

No 4: Steve McManaman became the first Englishman to win the Champions League when he lifted the trophy with Real Madrid in 2000 having scored in the final

No 3: Gary Lineker scored 21 goals in his first season with Barcelona and won the Copa del Rey and European Cup Winners' Cup with the club. Ended his career with an injury-ravaged spell in Japan with Grampus Eight

No 2: Kevin Keegan won the European Footballer of the Year award twice during his time at Hamburg, he helped the club win the Bundesliga in 1979 and 1980 European Cup final where they lost to Nottingham Forest

No: 1 John Charles was adored by the Juve fans for years after his stint with the club. In 1997 they voted him the club's best-ever foreign player - ahead of Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane. Charles scored 93 goals in 155 appearances for Juve, winning three Italian titles and the Coppa Italia twice

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