Striking through the bamboo curtain
The cold, heavy rain does little to dampen the excitement of the 21,500 fans inside the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Shillong. The high turnout, in spite of the most expensive tickets in the I-league, is a regular affair for Shillong Lajong. As the players of Lajong and Pune FC come out — delayed by an hour because an ambulance meant for emergencies was stuck in traffic — Minchol Son, 27, the home team’s captain and the face of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in India, eggs his teammates on.
While most players have lost their pre-game momentum thanks to the late start, Son is constantly moving, never holding the ball for longer than two touches, playing it to the midfield, getting it back, trying to get an offensive move or running back to cut out an attack from the away team. He’s by far Lajong’s most dynamic player this evening.
It’s because of this evident commitment to Lajong’s cause that Son was voted the Most Valuable Player by the fans in his inaugural season in 2012. Head coach Thangboi Singto, says, “He’s the best foreign player in Lajong’s 30-year history. Which is also why he was awarded the captaincy a year after he arrived.”
Heading back to the tunnel after the final whistle, Son’s autograph is much sought after. Fans stick pens and notebooks through the railing, even as the rest of this football-crazy city returns to discuss the game in its drawing rooms and tea stalls.
Son was spotted by scouts of the Gurgaon-based sports management agency, Libero Sports. In a rare instance in professional football, Lajong’s management signed him up in 2012 without ever watching him in action — it proved to be impossible to get him a visa just to come down for trials. “Our scouts saw Minchol playing in Tokyo for a local club of North Korean-origin players. Given his strengths on the field, they felt he could put in a solid shift in the game in India or Southeast Asia,” says Arvind Narayan of Libero Sports.
Son, for one, is happy to have moved here. “In Japan, I had a day job after which I went for training, so I was glad when a professional contract was offered to me,” he says. Since joining Lajong, he has played almost every game, clocking in more than 2,000 hours of playing time already. For the Lajong team, who usually play in a 4-4-2 offensive formation, he is the backbone of the attacks as their centre-back.
Son has become an integral part of the team and one from whom Indian players learn a lot. As India’s under-21 international Ongnam Milan Singh from Manipur says, “Players from their side of the world are quick and think on their feet. Minchol is aggressive on the field and a good captain.”
Off the pitch, Son has found his comfort zone in the hill city. MOT Café and Café Shillong are his favourite hangouts. “They have free wi-fi; crucial for a player living far away from home… and from close friends” he adds with a smirk.
“North Korea is my country and I’d love to play for them at the senior level, but home for me is Kyoto in Japan,” says Son, of his life before Shillong. A third-generation Zainichi, Son’s father is a businessman in Kyoto and his two sisters are still studying. The Zainichi are Koreans who took refuge in Japan after World War II. They are the second largest ethnic group in the country and maintain a strong link with the Korean peninsula, thanks to organisations like Chongryon, with members who have chosen to retain their de facto North Korean nationality. Son’s Zainichi identity plays a strong role in his career — the previous club he represented was FC Korea, where all his teammates had Korean roots. While he could have easily chosen to play for Japan, Son chose to represent DPR Korea, playing at the under-19 and under-23 levels internationally.
“I want to play for DPR Korea’s senior national team,” says Son. In the last few years, North Korea has grown rapidly in football. While they couldn’t manage a repeat of their 2010 success and qualify for the World Cup this year, they have booked a berth in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup (similar to UEFA’s European championships). In the under-17 World Cup held in 2005, they had managed to make it to the last eight as well. Many of those players represent the national team today.
“It’s not like before, and unlike other Asian countries, we’re strong and use our physical strength well in the game,” says Son about the Korean team. “The youth league in Pyongyang is also in good form. And while it’s disappointing not to qualify for Brazil, I think we have a good shot at World Cup 2018.”
Despite his strong affiliation with the nation, Son has visited North Korea only a few times. On his last visit in 2007, he stayed in Pyongyang for a month to train for the under-23 team. “I couldn’t see much because we were training,” he recalls, “But apart from problems caused by my accent, the trip was great. Hopefully, I’ll visit the country again.”
For Son, his time at Shillong Lajong is a step towards getting called up for the North Korean team as well as getting a deal with one of the bigger Japanese clubs. He says, “After Lajong, I want to play in Europe or go back to the J-League. My dream is to play for the North Korean national team.” Until then, the studs of Son’s boots are firmly embedded in the football fields of Shillong.