Daniel Issroff

Meet the North Korean teenager taking football by storm

The scene was straight out of a spy novel.

Everything was in place. After all, the details had been meticulously and delicately arranged.

The protagonist was seated in a hotel room in Milan, having been driven there by car — rather than flown or taken the train, so as to avoid any unforeseen complications.

He had prepared, being given his material ahead of time to ensure, again, that no curveballs would be thrown his way.

And then he got the call — a secretive communication from an unidentified government ministry in his home country.

The plan was off, the mission aborted: he was not to make his scheduled appearance on Rai’s popular Italian sports show Domenica sportiva.

The man in question was Han Kwang-song, a 19-year-old forward currently on loan at Perugia in Serie B.

If that’s a name you haven’t heard before, it’s probably because of Han’s unique origin.

Han is from North Korea — born in Pyongyang in 1998. From what we are told, he spent his youth career at Chobyong Sports Club.

Fast forward a few years and he’s has made a blistering start to the current season, scoring a hat-trick on his Serie B debut in August and helping his side to second place after seven games. His six goals so far — scored at a rate of better than one every 90 minutes — are joint-second for the most in the division.

His form has earned political congratulations and talk-show invitations, which is all part of the deal for a player from the isolated totalitarian state of North Korea.

Han’s newfound stardom and incredible story meant Rai were not pleased with the player’s no-show. In a subtle passive-aggressive protest, they chose to leave Han’s empty chair on the set, showing it throughout the broadcast next to Perugia’s president, Massimiliano Santopadre.

The regime’s stance was non-negotiable and, according to a report, Han burst into tears when he got off the phone. Santopadre apologised for Han’s absence on air, making up an excuse about Han’s age and unfamiliarity with Italian culture and media instead of blaming the North Korean government. “He’s a great talent on the field,” the president said of Han, “not so much off it, yet.”

That Han is an exceptional player has been apparent for a few years now. Little is known about Chobyong Sports Club, where he spent his formative years, but he captained North Korea’s youth sides, making a strong impression at the 2014 Under 16 AFC Championships in Thailand, at which he scored four times and led his country to victory.

His national team performances helped attract the attention of the Italian Soccer Management Academy in Perugia, who had developed a relationship with the DPR Korea Football Association dating back to a trip taken to North Korea by a group including the Italian senator, Antonio Razzi.

North Korea’s interest in producing footballing talent comes right from the very top. Kim Jong-un, who is believed to be a keen football fan, opened the country’s first development academy, the Pyongyang International Football School, in 2013. “We are training our students to become super-talented players who can surpass the skills of people like Lionel Messi,” a coach at the centre told AFP in a rare news report.

Han has very much been part of the country’s push. He was one of a group of North Korean talents that was offered the opportunity to train and trial at the ISM Academy, where he thrived and earned a permanent place. Han then signed for Cagliari after his 18th birthday, making his first-team debut in April 2017 and becoming the first North Korean to score in Serie A when he netted against Torino a week later.

Razzi, who bizarrely claims to have discovered Han, has been ensuring that news of Han’s exploits making its way back to his home country. “I sent a note to the dear leader, Kim Jong-un, congratulating him on Han’s great performance,” the senator revealed after the 19-year-old’s recent hat-trick.

Han’s journey from Pyongyang to Perugia is fascinating but anyone who has seen the forward’s unique two-footed ability will be asking an even more intriguing question: how did he get so good?

With most players, it’s easy to trace the origins of their game and how they developed into the player that they are today. With Lionel Messi, to take perhaps the most obvious example, you can watch him play and clearly pick out the street football instincts honed in Rosario and the geometric understanding of time and space learned at La Masia.

Italian players typically play like Italian players. Kids raised at Arsenal usually play the Arsenal way.

With Han, you literally have no idea what to expect. Outside of watching their national team, we have little context for how North Koreans play. We can only speculate about their system of youth development, which makes Han and his unusual style so fascinating to analyse.

It’s hard to imagine, for example, that creativity and individual expression are traits that are encouraged in the North Korean development system. Yet Han seems to spring up in positions that wouldn’t occur to a classically-trained striker, making unorthodox runs and often seeing the pattern of an attack before it unfolds.

Would Han have been allowed to watch European football growing up? Many footballers speak about their idols, heroes who they emulated on the playground and who influenced how they play.

Han said in a rare interview that his favourite player is Cristiano Ronaldo but without access to television and the internet, how much of Ronaldo would he have actually seen before moving to Italy?

Perhaps more than we know. Much like Ronaldo, Han possesses a scary array of attributes, including natural quickness and agility, precise dribbling and an uncanny sense of poise in the final third. He’s one of those players for whom the game just seems to slow down.

More than anything, however, it’s his potential that excites. We have quite literally never seen a player like Han before.

“He’s destined to do great things,” Perugia’s assistant coach Davide Ciampelli proclaimed. Han’s play has reportedly turned heads at some of Europe’s top clubs including Arsenal, Everton and Juventus. Who knows — perhaps the day is not so far off when supporters at the Emirates or the Juventus Stadium are singing about a North Korean.

There is much for neutral fans to enjoy about him as well. Han’s rise is not only a throwback to the pre-globalisation days when foreign styles were actually mysterious but also a reminder that football truly is the world’s game. Without delving into the politics of the situation, we can all appreciate how great it is to see Han and his multinational mix of team-mates smiling and celebrating together after he scores a goal.

By all accounts, or rather by the few that exist, he is a polite, ambitious kid and you can’t help but root for him to succeed.

Han is all set to become North Korea’s first footballing superstar — if only they let him on TV.