By Michael Church
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Joern Andersen had long harbored hopes of coaching in Asia, but the former Norway international never imagined he would one day end up working in one of the world’s most secretive nations.
A little over a year ago, though, the 54-year-old became the first foreign coach of North Korea in more than a quarter of a century and is now setting his sights on steering the nation to a third World Cup.
“I came last May to Pyongyang and I’m living there and I work with the national team like a club team every day and I’m very satisfied with the situation,” he told Reuters.
“At the end of 2015, I was coaching at Austria Salzburg and a businessman from Germany called me to find out if I was interested to be a national team trainer in Asia, in North Korea.
“At first I was very surprised about the question, but after thinking about it and speaking many times with the DPR Korea FA, I took the decision to go there.
“I was always a fan of Asia and I have worked with many Asian players before and I like the mentality of the players, so for me it was a dream to go to Asia.”
North Korea’s relationship with the international football community has mirrored its geopolitical isolation for much of the last three decades, with the country’s teams making fitful appearances in regional competitions.
Having famously reached the quarter-finals of the 1966 World Cup in England, the country’s forays into the international arena in the years after were few and far between, although they did qualify for the World Cup once more in 2010.
The previous successes have been achieved under the watchful eye of local coaches, however.
After completing an initial eight-month stint, Andersen signed an extension that takes him through to the end of the qualifying rounds of the 2019 Asian Cup, with his sights set on guiding the country to the 2022 World Cup finals.
“I think it’s very important for the country, if it’s not important they don’t want to take me, a foreign coach, for the national team,” he said.
“For the FA, for the whole country it’s very important that we qualify for the Asian Cup finals. Maybe, later for the World Cup in Qatar.”
Despite initial uncertainty, the former striker has been impressed by the quality of the players he has worked with in Pyongyang to date.
“When I arrived there at first I was not sure what I would see but I was very surprised with the quality of the players,” he says.
“The players from North Korea are technically very good, they have a very good mentality. We started with the physical training and the tactical training and the technical training and all together I think we making the right steps.”
North Korea’s status as a pariah state has made it a challenge for the country to gain the experience required by playing friendly matches and tournaments overseas, but Andersen is hoping the influence of sport can play a role in changing attitudes.
“It’s not always easy to get some matches, but I’m not unsatisfied,” he says. “We played in Thailand, before we played a friendly in Qatar.
“We have been invited to Europe but we won’t go because the travel is too long before the games. So I think the small steps are coming.
“Sport is very important for other things too and it can build some bridges between countries so I’m very happy to help in this way.”
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)