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Frontale’s Chong draws strength from pride in North Korean heritage

by Andrew Mckirdy

KURIHIRA, Kanagawa Pref. — Kawasaki Frontale’s North Korean striker Chong Tese has a busy year ahead of him.

With his club riding high in the J. League and an Asian Champions League quarterfinal clash with Nagoya Grampus coming up next month, the 25-year-old has enough to keep him occupied as he tries to steer Kawasaki to its first major silverware.

But there will be no let-up in 2010 either. As the star attraction of the first North Korean team to qualify for the World Cup since 1966, Chong is already looking forward to the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition in South Africa.

“It was so satisfying when we qualified,” Chong, who is known as Jong Tae Se when he plays for his country, said earlier this week.

“I had wanted to play in the World Cup from the moment I was born, so it was a dream come true. I wanted to say thanks to my parents, because if they hadn’t raised me the way they did, I couldn’t have done it.”

For the moment, however, his focus is firmly on Frontale as they try to overhaul Kashima Antlers’ formidable lead at the top of the table.

Chong, who has scored seven league goals this season, believes his team can derail Kashima’s bid for a third consecutive J. League title. He is also drawing inspiration from the success Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka have had in Asia’s premier international club competition in recent years.

“It’s very difficult in our position but we believe we can win the league, and we believe we can beat any team in the ACL,” he said. “We were proud to see Japanese teams winning it. We saw that a Japanese team could win against teams from other countries, and we knew that we had beaten Urawa and Gamba so we realized we could beat teams from other countries too.”

But Chong’s pride in Japanese success does not extend as far as his own international allegiance. Born in Aichi Prefecture to “Zainichi” (Korean residents of Japan) parents, he attended North Korea-funded schools in Japan before enrolling at Korea University in Tokyo.

The experience, he says, shaped him as a person and influenced his choice of national team.

“I grew up with ethnic education, and I learned everything about North Korea, the good things and the bad things,” he said. “North Korea gives us money for our education, but the Japanese government really hates our school and they discriminate against us. They give us a difficult life, but North Korea helps us.

“I felt that North Korea was my country, so I decided to play for them. If I had chosen Japan or South Korea, I could have made a lot of money and had a lot of media attention. But I chose North Korea, so the press don’t look at me or show what I can do on TV.

“But I have pride. I have the heart of a North Korean, and nobody can break that. It’s like a diamond.”

With very little known about soccer in North Korea, the world is curious to see how Chong and his teammates fare in South Africa. The media glare of the World Cup may seem an incongruous environment for one of the most secretive and notorious states on the planet, but Chong is keen to show his country in a positive light.

“Everybody thinks North Korea is a really dangerous country, but we want to show our kindness,” he said. “We don’t play dirty like China and South Korea. They are always fighting, going in to tackle your leg after you pass the ball — very dangerous play. But North Koreans have a lot of kindness in their hearts. I want to show that to the world.”

Chong is one of a handful of Zainichi on the North Korean team, with the rest of the side drawn from homegrown players. Their lifestyles are as far apart as is possible to imagine, but instead of causing friction, Chong insists the differences draw them together.

“North Koreans are really interested in our life,” he said. “In Japan everyone has money, but in North Korea everyone fights for the country and only for the country. But everybody wants to have some money, so my teammates are interested in what we do.

“They want to know how much money we make and how we spend our free time. If I have money, I can spend my free time doing fun things, but they don’t have free time. I can explain to them about my life.”

For all the contrasting strains that make up his identity, Chong seems remarkably sure of who he is. But having earned the nickname “the Asian Wayne Rooney,” he is also sure of who he isn’t.

“I can’t understand why everyone calls me that,” the 181-cm striker said of comparisons with the Manchester United star. “My style is more like (Chelsea’s Didier) Drogba, with a lot of physical contact. I don’t have Rooney’s skills. But he is a really great player so it would be nice to be like him.”