The story of the minnows that went to North Korea masquerading as Brazil
Though his name may be unfamiliar, Sun Myung Moon led a truly remarkable life.
He was born in what is now North Korea in 1920, when Korea was still a Japanese colony, spent five years in a North Korean prison camp from 1947 after being accused of spying for the South, and later in life became a successful businessman and notable campaigner for the reunification of the Koreas.
He was convicted of tax evasion in the United States, spending 13 months in prison there, and somehow managed to maintain personal relationships with Richard Nixon, George Bushes HW and W, Kim Il-sung and Louis Farrakhan.
Most famously, though, Moon was the founder of a controversial religion (some say cult), the Unification Church, which became famous for its mass wedding ceremonies. According to himself, Moon was not just the leader of the church, but the Messiah. Yep, the actual Messiah.
Here’s a line from the Divine Principle, a book he co-wrote outlining the principles of the Unification Church: “With the fullness of time, God has sent one person to this earth to resolve the fundamental problems of human life and the universe. His name is Sun Myung Moon.”
And, if it is not immediately obvious – which it really should be, but just in case it’s not – Moon’s resolution to “the fundamental problems of human life and the universe” involved sending a Brazilian lower-league team to North Korea purporting to be the Selecao.
The Brazilian lower-league team in question was Atletico Sorocaba, from the city of Sorocaba in Sao Paulo state, and the jaunt to the world’s most socially and politically isolated nation took place in November 2009. But the story starts a few years before, when Reverendo Moon, as he’s known in Brazil, took charge of the Atletico.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Moon was looking to increase the presence of his Unification Church in Brazil and sent thousands of his followers to the country to spread the word. He had already founded a football club in South Korea and must have thought that he could use the sport as a tool to gain traction in South America’s largest country. As such, his church invested heavily in two clubs, one of which was Atletico.
Soon they started to climb the divisions, getting up into the top tier of Sao Paulo’s state league, if not into any of the four national divisions. In 2005, they went down again but stabilised in the second tier of Sao Paulo football, which in terms of standard and crowd sizes is something like the English Conference or League Two.
Despite being a staunch anti-communist, Moon kept a line of communication open with the North Korean dictatorship as part of his efforts to reunite the peninsula. Moon spoke with Kim Il-sung – even attending his funeral in 1994 – and the channel remained open with his successor Kim Jong-il.
In 2009, an opportunity arose. North Korea had qualified for the World Cup the following year and wanted to play teams from other continents to get used to unfamiliar styles of play. With friendlies against the world’s more prestigious national teams off the cards for political reasons, Moon saw the opportunity and used his contacts to organise for Atletico Sorocaba to go and face the North Korean national team in Pyongyang.
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For Moon, it was a rare opportunity to see the nation of his birth open up to foreigners. To him, sending a Brazilian sports team halfway across the world was part of his mission to reunite the two Koreas and, more widely, bring peace to the world. Yet for the Atletico Sorocaba coaching staff and squad, one can only imagine that going to play in such a repressive state was a frightening prospect.
They travelled via China and boarded a North Korean plane that was, according to the players, held together with glue. “Have you ever seen a plane [patched up] with epoxy resin? I have,” Atletico masseuse Sidnei Gramatico told Globoesporte in 2017.
They did arrive safe and relatively sound, and upon landing at the airport, were greeted by a heavy army presence. “It gave you the feeling of being in a concentration camp,” then Atletico manager Edu Marangon told Record TV shortly after their return.
The brutal regime’s soldiers relieved them of their passports and many of their material possessions. “They took everything,” defender Leandro da Silva later told UOL Esporte, “phone, laptop, everything that could give you internet access. They also took our cameras.”
Soon the squad were whisked off to the Pyongyang hotel where they would stay for the duration of their visit, watched 24 hours a day by state security guards. “Each step you take, you have to think twice about where you’re heading,” Marangon told Record.
The lights in the entire city went off at 9pm each night, Marangon’s players recounted. The only things that remained illuminated were the hotel and the grand statues of the country’s Supreme Leaders. “What most shocked me,” Marangon continued, “was not the atmosphere around us, but the people’s faces. It was quite scary, quite sad. It is a people that needs help.”
Over the following days, they were taken around the city under strict supervision, allowed to visit the various monuments to Supreme Leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. On the day before the game, they trained in the national stadium as the North Korean squad watched on.
The following afternoon, they were taken back to the stadium, where tens of thousands of people had already gathered. Used to playing in front of crowds of a few thousand or fewer, it was a shock for the Brazilians. But when they walked out onto the pitch in front of 80,000 people, with 30,000 more on the outside, they realised why there were so many in attendance. On the electronic scoreboard, there were the initials ‘PRK’, for the North Korean national team, and next to them ‘BRA’.
“As they’d never received a Brazilian team,” Leandro da Silva told UOL, “for them it was the Brazilian national team there. The government sent the people to watch the game and we ended up representing Brazil.”
According to Marangon: “When the Korean team had the ball, the fans made a real racket. When we got the ball, it was silent, it was like the stadium was completely empty.”
In their yellow away kit, Atletico battled to a 0-0 draw – a respectable result for a club of their stature against a national team that had qualified for a World Cup. Diplomatically speaking, it was also a good outcome. It is not the sort of game that any visiting team would want to win by a large margin.
“Reverendo Moon wanted us to win,” Atletico’s vice-president Waldir Cipriani told Globoesporte. “It was only later he contented himself [with the result]. He offered us an excellent lunch at his palace in South Korea and said it was better to have drawn, because that way we didn’t have any problems getting out. You never know what might happen. There were a lot of soldiers in the stands.”
Atletico returned home safely, back to play their games in the comfortable mediocrity of the Sao Paulo state second tier. North Korea, for their part, ended up facing the actual Selecao at the World Cup in South Africa a little over six months later. On that occasion they were beaten 2-1, going down courtesy of a Maicon wondergoal.
Yet 2009 was not the last time Atletico travelled to North Korea. They sent their first team again in 2011, this time as Atletico Sorocaba rather than Brazil, and an Atletico Under-15 side travelled in 2015.
“Atletico Sorocaba is a friend of North Korea,” Cipriani told Globoesporte. “The boss was born there and… wanted football for peace, a football without guns. He said, ‘Let’s create a project to use Brazilian football as a symbol of peace in my homeland.'”
Unfortunately for Moon, he passed away in 2012 without getting the peace and unification he desired. And though Atletico Sorocaba managed to stumble on for few years without him, his absence – and more importantly, the absence of his investment – eventually caught up with them. Atletico withdrew from all professional football competitions in 2016.
By Joshua Law.