The tiny Brazilian club that fooled North Korea – ‘They would have been angry if we had won’

The tiny Brazilian club that fooled North Korea – ‘They would have been angry if we had won’
Related media – Related media

Everyone seems to have a slightly different estimate of how many people were outside the stadium on that strange November afternoon, but the consensus is that it was a lot.

As the bus crept through the crowd, the Brazilian footballers on board stared out of the windows. Locals — tens of thousands of them, on some accounts — flooded the streets. Most greeted the bus with diffident waves. A few ran alongside, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone they would not have recognised anyway.

An hour later, those same footballers walked through a long underground tunnel, up a flight of stairs and out onto the pitch. They lined up in front of the dugout and sang Brazil’s national anthem.

The match that began moments thereafter took place in 2009, but you would never know it from the photographs. There is an austere, monochrome quality to the images, and not just because they were captured on a basic digital camera. There are no advertising hoardings and none of the other hypercapitalist trappings that adorn the modern game. As a result, it looks a lot like pre-war football.

Then there are the stands, which are packed but oddly lifeless; these appear to be spectators rather than supporters. There is also a jarring uniformity to them, which starts to make sense once the context becomes clear.

One picture, taken before kick-off, shows an outmoded electronic scoreboard. It reads “PRK 0-0 BRA”. That’s North Korea vs Brazil.

The game was played in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. The home team represented the most closed-off nation in the world, a military dictatorship which has been shrouded in mystery for decades. The away team? That’s where things get even more complicated.

North Korea hosting Brazil at the Kim Il-Sung Stadium would have been a major geopolitical event. You would have heard about it if it had happened, which it didn’t.

But something even more unlikely did.

The team billed as ‘Brazil’ were, in fact, a tiny club side from a satellite town 80 kilometres north west of Sao Paulo. Theirs was a squad of journeymen and part-timers, none of whom could believe their eyes when they walked out of the tunnel and looked up at the scoreboard.

“It was clear that the North Korean regime wanted the word ‘Brazil’ to appear there,” says Waldir Cipriani, one of the organisers of the match. “But we were just a Brazilian team who wore yellow.”

The Reverend

Fifteen years ago, there were two football teams in Sorocaba. The most historic was Sao Bento, whose greatest claim to fame was reaching the last 16 of the Brazilian championship back in 1979.

Their neighbours, Atletico Sorocaba, had only been around since the early 1990s and had never made it higher than the third division nationally. Their matches — low-level affairs in the regional leagues, mainly — rarely drew more than a couple of thousand fans.

If the very notion of a Brazilian club team landing an away fixture against North Korea seems a bit far-fetched, the idea of that team being Atletico Sorocaba… well, we’re so far into the realm of the absurd that we’re going to need a map to get out again. That, though, is exactly what happened.

Atletico Sorocaba, in red, take on Palmeiras in the 2013 Sao Paulo state championship (Eduardo Efrain/LatinContent via Getty Images)

To understand how and why, we need to go back to the early 2000s when Atletico were acquired by a South Korean investment group led by Sun Myung Moon — or, to his friends and followers, ‘Reverend Moon’.

Moon was the founder of the Unification Church, a religious movement that stressed the importance of the family and proclaimed Moon himself to be the second coming of Christ. To call the church controversial would be to undersell it; the ‘Criticisms’ section of its Wikipedia page runs to 7,000 words. Moon, who died in 2012, was found guilty of tax fraud by a United States federal grand jury in 1982, spending 13 months in prison.

Atletico Sorocaba was not Moon’s first incursion into Brazil. After growing disenchanted with the U.S. — “the country that represents Satan’s harvest… the kingdom of extreme individuality, of free sex” — he acquired 85,000 hectares of land in Mato Grosso do Sul state in the 1990s. He planned to create a model community in the town of Jardim, on the border with Paraguay. According to news reports in Brazil, thousands of South Koreans relocated to the region at his behest.

As the Unification Church expanded, Sorocaba — around 100km from Sao Paulo and with a population of around a million — was seen as a useful staging post. It was Cipriani, a prominent figure within the church structure in Brazil, who recommended that Moon buy Atletico. Cipriani subsequently became the club’s vice president.

“Reverend Moon invested in football because he had a vision,” Cipriani tells The Athletic. “He believed that football was the cure for human hatred. He used to say that you forget about your enemy when you’re running after a ball. That was why he wanted to promote it.

“He especially liked the characteristics of Brazilian football — the playfulness, the love of dribbling. He believed that Brazilian football would help him. He saw it as a force for peace.”

Whatever Moon’s motivations, he could not be accused of thinking small. His largesse allowed Atletico to renovate their training complex and the result was so impressive that Algeria would later choose it as their base for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Atletico would play numerous games in South Korea over the years, despite their relative irrelevance on their own domestic scene.

North Korea, though? That was another level entirely. No team from outside the Asian Football Confederation had ever played there.

Atletico Sorocaba opening that door owed, mainly, to two factors. The first was North Korea’s qualification for the 2010 World Cup. A team that had had little motivation to leave its bubble in 43 years — their previous World Cup appearance had been in 1966 — now needed a crash course in the global game.

“North Korea were interested in getting experience of Latin American football,” explains Cipriani. “There was this pressure from the government, who wanted the team to do well at the tournament. The team performing well was going to be good for the country.

“This was just one month before the final draw. They had been trying to organise friendlies, but which other country was going to go to the effort of going to North Korea, sorting out all the visas, for 90 minutes of football?”

Enter Moon, whose background provided motive and opportunity. Moon was born in 1920 in what would become North Korea. He was imprisoned in a North Korean labour camp for two years in 1948, only moving to South Korea after being liberated by United Nations troops during the Korean War. As a result of his experiences, Moon was staunchly opposed to communism — “especially atheistic Marxism,” says Cipriani — but still cultivated links with Kim Il-sung, the supreme leader of North Korea between 1948 and 1994.

The Reverend Sun Myung Moon (left) speaks at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1974 (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

“I learnt the essence of Christianity from him,” says Cipriani. “People speak a lot about loving your enemy, but you have to put it into practice. His teaching was to love your enemy, but hate the thing that makes him your enemy — love the ill, hate the illness. Reverend Moon was anti-communism, but not anti-communist.

“When Reverend Moon went to Pyongyang, it was after being invited by Kim Il-sung, who had spent 40 years trying to kill him. Before he died, Kim Il-sung authorised Reverend Moon to build a car factory and acquire a five-star hotel (in North Korea). So in practice, due to that relationship, we had great contacts in the North Korean ministry of sport.”

Those connections bore fruit in 2009, against a favourable diplomatic backdrop.

“Brazil was in a honeymoon period with North Korea,” says Cipriani. “Lula da Silva (Brazil’s president at the time) had opened an embassy there earlier in the year and the ambassador liked socialism. We never discussed it because he showed us a lot of hospitality. We left out the politics and the ideology. Our objectives were sporting and diplomatic. We were there to build bridges. That was Reverend Moon’s aim.”

It is impossible to know whether Moon’s opportunism was truly in service of improved relations between North Korea and South Korea, or merely part of a wider strategy for himself and his church. Either way, it was adventure time for Atletico Sorocaba. They were heading to Pyongyang.

Black-and-white city

“I didn’t even know there were two different Koreas,” Leandro Silva says with a grin.

Silva was 21 years old in 2009. He was Atletico Sorocaba’s right-back, one of a handful of players who had come through the youth ranks at the club. “Simple lads,” Cipriani calls them.

Initially, Atletico’s players did not know they were going to North Korea. The plan was to play games in China and South Korea, a fun little jaunt that would help them prepare for the 2010 season. The news that they might be taking a detour came late in the day; they were already in Beijing by the time their visas were finally approved.

“Enchanting, a novelty,” is how Cipriani describes the chance to go to Pyongyang, but not everyone was quite so animated by the prospect.

“My first reaction was one of shock and fear,” recalls Silva. “I tried to find out a bit about North Korea but I could only see bad news. Poverty, lack of freedom, food shortages… everyone said it was a country at war, heavily armed.

“I thought about what it would mean to be there when something happened. I thought about my family. They (club officials) explained everything to the players but we were worried.”

The journey to Pyongyang did not exactly settle the nerves. “We set off from China on this aeroplane… this ugly, scruffy, old thing,” says Silva. “You can’t imagine how bad it was. There were suitcases rattling around in the back and others strapped to the roof outside. The plane bounced and wobbled the whole way.”

Cipriani remembers Edu Marangon, Atletico’s coach, being so scared he could barely speak. The team masseur, Sidnei Gramatico, summed up the situation in an interview with GloboEsporte: “Have you ever seen an aeroplane stuck together with superglue? I have.”

A frosty reception awaited them at the airport. “Soldiers everywhere… it felt like you were arriving at a concentration camp,” Marangon told Record TV. “It was like we had taken a space shuttle to another planet.”

The players and staff were asked to hand over their electronic devices. Mobile phones were confiscated and put into storage at the airport; laptops and cameras were inspected as if they were bombs.

From the airport, the delegation boarded a bus. Destination: Mansu Hill, home of a 22-metre-high statue of Kim Il-sung. It was the first of a series of excursions to important North Korean cultural sites, organised by the dictatorship. “Our itinerary there was decided down to the last millimetre,” says Cipriani. “Every part of the trip was organised.”

The Atletico travelling party at a statue of Kim Il-sung (Waldir Cipriani, Atletico Sorocaba)

That first drive through Pyongyang left a mark on Silva. “It was like something from a film about the old days,” he says. “You know those period dramas on Netflix, with vintage cars? It was like that, a black-and-white city. There was no colour there.

“There were men crouched down on their haunches, smoking cigarettes. There were people working on plantations and no kids out playing. You could see in people’s faces that their lives were dedicated to work. It was very regimented and very grim. What we saw was a real dictatorship.”

The players laid down flowers at the monument, had a brief look at the pitch they would be playing on two days later, then went for a meal at the embassy. At all times, they were shadowed by North Korean officials in long coats. “We were always accompanied,” says Silva. “We couldn’t do anything without an escort. If you went to the bathroom, someone would follow you and wait outside the cubicle door.”

Some of the players saw the funny side. Marangon, the coach, did not. He found the entire experience deeply unsettling. “I asked God to let me see the sea one more time,” he told Brazilian website UOL. “I didn’t know whether I’d ever leave that place.”

In the evening, the players got settled at their hotel, which was not nearly as bleak. “It was top quality, five stars,” says Silva. “They put on these special meals for us, almost banquets. They tried to make things from our cuisine: rice, beans. It was a long way from the Brazilian food we were used to, but we could see the effort they put in. It was really cool.

“We all had a good laugh, joking as normal. The hotel staff didn’t understand anything we said and we didn’t understand them either. Waldir Cipriani understood a bit of Korean, but for the rest of us, there was a lot of laughter. There was also a microphone in the dining room and we would sing Brazilian songs and dance a bit. They would laugh at our style of music.”

At night, there were card games in the rooms. At least until 10pm, when the electricity went off, plunging the city into darkness.

‘Brazil are here’

On the second day, Atletico trained for two hours on the Kim Il-Sung Stadium’s artificial pitch. They were studied throughout by the North Korean players and coaching staff, all of whom were sat in the stands. At the end of the session, it was North Korea’s turn to train. Atletico were not allowed to watch.

“We had no information about the team we were playing,” says Cipriani. “Zero.”

The following afternoon, after a little more obligatory tourism (a visit to a museum dedicated to Kim Il-sung’s fight against the Japanese), the Atletico players returned to the stadium. There, they were confronted with scenes that would have made even an international footballer draw breath.

“When they saw the stadium, with 80,000 people inside and 20,000 more outside… well, you can imagine their reaction,” says Cipriani, and while most estimates put the capacity of the Kim Il-Sung Stadium at around 50,000, that hardly dilutes the anecdote.

“It was a lot of people,” says Silva. “It was a novelty for them. I think it was this feeling of, ‘The Brazilians are here, Brazil are here’. I think they wanted to see different people — people of a different race, a different colour.”

Brazil, or just Brazilians? That part is up for debate. Some insist that the game was, in some sense, ‘sold’ to the North Korean people as a historic meeting with the most successful nation in World Cup history.

The scoreboard reading North Korea 0-0 Brazil, at kick-off (Waldir Cipriani, Atletico Sorocaba)

“I think that’s the story they told the people there,” goalkeeper Klayton Scudeler said in an interview with Radio Novelo. “The stadium was packed on every side. I think people thought we were the Brazil team and that’s why it was so rammed.”

Cipriani agrees. “They created this political propaganda,” he says. “The regime wanted people to see North Korea beat Brazil before the World Cup.”

Others, like Silva, are more sceptical. What is certain, however, is that the letters ‘BRA’ up on the scoreboard lent the occasion an extra dose of prestige.

“When I saw the scoreboard and looked at us, all wearing yellow kit… it was cool but I also felt this responsibility,” says Silva. “I felt like I was playing for the Selecao (another name for the Brazil national side). It was an emotional experience.”

It was the same for Marangon. “We had to put on a performance that honoured our country,” he said. “In that situation, we were Brazil.”

For the players, that sense of patriotism was tempered by pragmatism. “Edu said to play hard, but we were joking around before kick-off,” says Silva. “We said, ‘If we win this game, we might not get out of here alive’. It was a stadium full of soldiers! We thought a draw would make everyone happy.”

As it turned out, they did not need to go easy. North Korea were better than they expected.

“We didn’t expect North Korea to be the best technically, but they were very good,” recalls Silva. “They were also very fast. They clearly did a lot of fitness work. They must have trained with the military because physically they were very strong. They played quick football, each player taking one or two touches, always in the direction of the goal.”

Atletico Sorocaba – not Brazil – take on North Korea (Waldir Cipriani, Atletico Sorocaba)

That was one memorable aspect of the game. Another was the behaviour of the crowd, who cheered enthusiastically when North Korea had the ball and were eerily quiet when Atletico were in possession.

“It was like they were organised or controlled, like they were following rules,” Silva says. “It wasn’t the kind of energy you get from fans in other countries and it wasn’t this big mix of colours. They were all from the military, all in dark green uniform.”

Cipriani agrees. “It was clearly the work of the state,” he says. “In North Korea, you click your fingers and you fill the stadium. If you decide that this school will send 50 students, that this union will send its workers, that other groups and factories will do the same… it was a state directive to fill the stadium.

“There was no comparison with a stadium in Brazil. There was this deathly silence when we had the ball. It was like a funeral.”

The game ended 1-1. Two days later, over a celebratory meal at one of his residences in South Korea, Moon thanked the players for their efforts — and for the result.

“He said that the North Koreans would have been really angry if we had won,” Cipriani recalls. “He was happy that we drew.”

Recon and recognition

A month after Atletico’s trip to Pyongyang, Brazil were drawn in the same World Cup group as North Korea. A story that had been doing the rounds in the local press went national.

All of the major Brazilian newspapers got in touch with Marangon, Cipriani and the players. So, too, did Brazil manager Dunga and his technical staff.

“They didn’t know anything at all about the North Korean team,” says Cipriani. “There was no information. Brazil were set to play North Korea and Atletico Sorocaba knew more than they did.”

Silva looks back on that period with great fondness. “My phone rang off the hook,” he says, giggling. “People wanted to know about their best players, their technical level, their tactics. The fact we went there ended up being a big deal.

“When the World Cup began I was getting so many messages from friends and family. ‘You played them, right?! That’s so cool!’. I remember watching the (Brazil vs North Korea) game and telling my friends, ‘I marked that guy! I’ve got his shirt!’. It was really gratifying.”

Brazil’s Kaka holds off North Korea’s Mun In-guk at the 2010 World Cup; Brazil won the fixture 2-1 (Mike Egerton – PA Images via Getty Images)

In the years that followed, Atletico made three more journeys to North Korea: the senior side visited in 2010 and 2011, and the under-15s took part in a youth tournament in 2015.

“It was different each time,” says Cipriani. “But by (the second visit) they had realised they weren’t playing the Brazil national team, just a small club from Sao Paulo state with a yellow away kit.”

Cipriani stepped away from the club in 2014. Two years later, with financial support from the Unification Church having dried up in the wake of Moon’s death, Atletico Sorocaba folded, leaving behind only surreal memories.

“I still have a North Korea shirt from that game — the number two, from their right-back,” says Silva. “I’ve been offered a lot of money for that shirt, but I’m not selling it. It’s important to me, historic.

“I’ll cherish these memories forever. They were very special moments in my career. There are so many famous players and teams in the world who have never done what we did. I’m really proud of it.”


Brazilian journalist Renato Alves visited North Korea in September 2017. He was there to research his third book, The Hermit Kingdom. He was taken on a 10-day propaganda tour and was accompanied everywhere by three guides.

One of the sights on his itinerary was the Arch of Triumph, a huge structure aping the Parisian landmark of the same name. Stood on top of the monument, one of the officials accompanying Alves pointed to the Kim Il-Sung Stadium, just a stone’s throw away.

“In this stadium, our eternal president made his first speech after liberating the Korean people from Japanese imperialists,” he said.

“Oh, and it was also there that Brazil played against our national football team. You must have heard about that match. It was very good. I was there.”

(Top photos: Waldir Cipriani; design: Eamonn Dalton)

Linked media – Linked media