North Korean Soccer Unfazed by Sanctions

North Korea and Italian backer hold talks following World Cup appearance.
2011-03-28
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A member of the North Korea soccer team wears a Legea jersey during the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar.
A member of the North Korea soccer team wears a Legea jersey during the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar.
AP

Merchandise of the North Korean soccer team is becoming more popular despite international sanctions on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, according to Italian sporting goods manufacturer Legea, a key sponsor of the team.

Officials of North Korea's team and Legea met last week at the company’s headquarters in the Italian city of Pompeii and discussed details of a new jersey design under a four-year sponsorship agreement initiated at the end of the last World Cup tournament.

Two “key stakeholders” from the North Korean team discussed new designs for the team uniform and an expansion of their successful partnership during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, according to Lorenzo Grimaldi, the company’s marketing and sponsorship manager.

“Two core members of the North Korean soccer team met with company officials over the course of the two days mostly to discuss new [uniform] collections,” resulting in a decision to move forward, Grimaldi told RFA.

During the meetings, the two sides are believed to have exchanged ideas about Legea’s newly-launched Saga soccer uniform line and related supplies, as well as what support would be provided for the North Korean team.

Specific details of the arrangement were also discussed ahead of the North Korean women’s national soccer team’s participation in the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany. Legea will be sponsoring the women’s team for the tournament.

Originally, North Korean national soccer team officials and Legea had scheduled the meetings in February, but Grimaldi said they were rescheduled due to visa approval and flight delay issues.

Key sponsor

Legea has sponsored the North Korean national soccer team since the 2010 FIFA World Cup and has agreed to continue as a key sponsor for the next four years. The sponsorship for the period was valued at U.S. $4.9 million, including products for the national women’s and youth teams.

Last year, Legea sold a substantial amount of North Korean team replica jerseys, team-related merchandise and other apparel from a selection of more than 2,000 items, and Grimaldi said continued sanctions on the country have only increased the popularity of the merchandise.

He said Legea confirmed a global interest in the North Korean soccer team through its surprisingly high sales of replica jerseys last year, despite the team’s early exit from the World Cup.

Legea said the soccer team’s sportswear was popular in countries including the U.K., Spain, the U.S., and South Korea.

In Spain, Legea recorded sales of nearly 1 million Euros (U.S. $1.35 million).

Itagoal, a Legea product retailer in New York, confirmed high numbers of sales in the U.S. last year.

A representative of Itagoal said the company is eagerly awaiting a new shipment of North Korean team products from Italy.

An ‘apolitical company’

In addition to North Korea, Legea also sponsors the national soccer teams of Zimbabwe, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Iran.

The company sought out sponsorship of the North Korean national team after its other teams failed to qualify for the World Cup last year.

In a 2010 interview, a company representative told AFP that Legea is “an apolitical company—we do business.”

Earlier, Legea had run a statement on its website outlining its position on signing an agreement with the rogue Stalinist state.

"Many ask us what interest we could have in sponsoring North Korea, and whether this could not amount to negative publicity, but we disagree ... there is no negative publicity," the statement read.

World Cup qualifier

North Korea surprised many observers at their World Cup debut in 1966, reaching the quarter-finals and beating Italy in the group stage before dropping out.

In 2009, the team qualified for the 2010 FIFA World Cup but was eliminated in group play despite a good performance against perennial powerhouse Brazil, to whom they eventually lost 1-2.

The team's coach, Kim Jong Hun, informed the media that he received “regular tactical advice during matches” from Kim Jong Il “using mobile phones that are not visible to the naked eye” that the country’s despot had developed himself.

Reported and translated by Borah Jung for RFA’s Korean service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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