History of Football in North Korea

As the most popular sport in the country, football in North Korea has a long and proud history. It’s governing body – the KFA, was established in 1945 and overseas the men & women’s international teams as well as the domestic football leagues. North Korea became a FIFA affiliate in 1958 and went on to qualify for two world cups in 1966 & 2010.

Its women’s team in particular have been successful on the international stage. They reached the world cup quarter final in 2007 and won the Asian cup in 2008.

North Korea at the World Cup

In the 1966 world cup, the North Korean team was based in the English working class city of Middlesbrough. Due to their underdog status and fighting style of play, they won the hearts and minds of the locals there. Following the opening 3-0 defeat to the Soviet Union, thousands of people turned out for the next few games to cheer on the North Koreans. 

North Korea famously defeated Italy in the final group stage 1-0 to qualify for the second round.

It is still to this day the greatest upset in world cup history. 

In the second round they were 3-0 up against Portugal but inspired by the great Eusebio, Portugal came roaring back to win 5-3. The team still returned to Pyongyang as heroes.

Make sure to check out a documentary entitled the Game of Their Lives. It follows the team’s exploits in 1966 and travels to Pyongyang to interview the surviving players about their memories of the world cup.

In 2010 they lost every game including a respectable 2-1 defeat to Brazil and finished bottom of the group.

Kim Il Sung Stadium. The main venue for football in North Korea
Kim Il Sung Stadium - home of North Korean football
football inside the rungrado may day stadium north korea
Inside Mayday Stadium - the largest stadium in the world
Football in North Korea
North Korean domestic league match

Domestic Leagues

The league is a three tier system with promotions and relegation. 13 clubs comprise the top division.

Football clubs are not privately owned but rather represent different organs of the state. For example the army or police.

The most successful team are “April 25th” who have won the league 19 times. They are officially located in Nampo but play their home games in Pyongyang. Their rivalry with Pyongyang SC is known as the “Pyongyang derby”.

Another big rivalry is with Amnokgang who are affiliated with the ministry of People’s security. As April 25 are affiliated with the army, the professional army vs police rivalry also carries onto the pitch.

Playing football in north korea
Rungrado may day stadium
Mayday Stadium
Mayday stadium changing facilities

North Korean Players Abroad

Perhaps the most famous North Korean export has been the forward Han Kwang-song. In 2017 he became the first North Korean to play and score in Italy’s Serie A. He started out with Cagliari before moving to Italian giants Juventus and is currently playing in Qatar.

Another is Jong Tse Se who scored against Brazil in the 2010 world cup. He has played overseas for Cologne in Germany and a host of Japanese sides.

After the world cup he was dubbed “the People’s Rooney” by the British media due to his likeness of the English star.

Development of Grass Roots Football

In 2013, North Korea opened the Pyongyang International Football School to promote grassroots football development in the country.

Located in the shadow of the world’s largest Stadium – the Mayday, the school selects talented kids aged between 7 and 13 from across the country to attend. The children live on site and also have full school lessons including foreign languages which sets them up to play abroad.

The academy is fully equipped with natural grass fields and artificial surfaces. It also invites qualified coaches from Europe to visit & help with their training programs.

North Korean football referees

Inter - Korean Football

The two Koreas have met each other in qualifying matches for the 1990, 1994, 2010 and 2022 World Cups. Their last meeting in October 2019 was the first to be held in Pyongyang. It ended in a goalless stalemate behind closed doors.

Prior to the division of Korea, the two sides met frequently in the Seoul – Pyongyang competition between 1929 – 46. The two Koreas have conducted various exchange programs over the years, including football events for workers & kids.

Given the love of the game on both sides of the border, football and sport in general can be a powerful advancing force in cross border relations. Let’s hope these exchanges can continue well into the future.

Visit North Korea on one of our many tours or choose a private tour to visit the Mayday stadium and international football school. We have organised dedicated football tours in the past and hope to do so again in the future. Contact us for more information!

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Rocky road travel founder Shane Horan at the DMZ

Shane Horan


When Shane is not endlessly writing award winning content for Rocky Road, he's usually kayaking to and from the beer garden along Berlin's River Spree.