Unified Korea men’s handball team keep rivals guessing at world champs
After a unified Korean women’s ice-hockey team became a feature of last year’s Winter Olympics, a men’s team of North and South Korean players is an unknown factor for Thursday’s opening game of the world handball championships.
A unified Korean team, with four players from the communism-ruled North added to the 16-strong squad of South Korea players, face Germany, the co-hosts alongside Denmark, when the 2019 World Men’s Handball Championships opens in Berlin on Thursday.
The unified Korean women’s ice hockey team was a colourful attraction at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics despite losing all their games and finishing last.
Likewise, the men’s handball team is not expected to survive the group stages at the 2019 finals, contested by 24 teams.
However, the significance of a unified team playing in Germany’s capital, which celebrates the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this November, is not lost on the Koreans.
“With the fall of the Wall, one went on the path of peace. We want to show, as a unified team, that we Koreans can also follow a similar path,” said the team’s coach Cho Young-shin, a South Korean.
This will be Korea’s debut at a men’s world championships and the opening match is a 14,500-seater sell-out in Berlin with millions expected to tune in on television with Germany, a handball powerhouse, among the favourites to win a fourth world title.
“This game is steeped in history and will bring a lot of attention to our sport,” beamed Bob Hanning, vice-president of the German Handball Association (DHB).
The Koreans have been granted special permission by the International Handball Federation (IHF) to compete and they are the only team allowed to have 20 in their squad, four more than their rivals.
The idea is the brainchild of IHF president Hassan Moustafa, who invited a unified Korean team after South Korea qualified for the world championships by finishing third at the Asian Cup.
– Breaking the ice –
The full Korean team first set eyes on each other just before Christmas on 22 December in Berlin.
“At the first meeting, we were a bit out of touch with one another”, admitted team captain Jung Su-young, but his North Korean team-mate Ri Song Jin said the ice was broken at an evening team-building event, “since then we are connected by friendship”.
At least one North Korean player will feature in each of their five preliminary round games.
The Koreans are in Group A, alongside reigning world champions France and European powerhouses Russia, Germany and Serbia.
The team will play under the blue and white flag showing a unified Korea and are an unknown factor for the Germans, who had problems getting video footage of the North Koreans to analyse.
“They play a fast ball game and are tactically very disciplined. They will be a hard test for us,” said German head coach Christian Prokop.
Goalkeeper Silvio Heinevetter expects a tough afternoon after Germany struggled to beat South Korea four years ago, “it was extremely unpleasant — these little fast guys are not as bad as you’d think.”
The IHF invited both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un to the opening match, but neither are expected the attend.
Instead, guests of honour will be Germany’s president Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), a keen observer with North and South Korea having agreed to bid for the 2032 Olympic