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FootballNewsMiddlesbrough coach: ‘I can’t wait for the North Koreans to confiscate my phone’

Middlesbrough coach: ‘I can’t wait for the North Koreans to confiscate my phone’

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By Nick Harris

16 September 2010

The coach of the Middlesbrough Ladies team who departed today on an historic tour to the ‘closed’ nation of North Korea has been so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of international media interest in the trip that she told sportingintelligence just before departure this morning: “I can’t wait for the North Koreans to confiscate my mobile phone when we arrive. It hasn’t stopped ringing for days and I’m sick of the bloody thing. My players are aghast they’ll have to give their phones for four days while we’re there, but I’ll be glad of the peace.”

Marrie Wieczorek, a former England captain, works for Middlesbrough’s “football in the community” programme as well as coaching the Ladies team. The trip to North Korea has been more than a year in the planning, and has arisen to mark 10 years of diplomatic relations between Britain and the secretive East Asian state. Boro are involved because of their ties to North Korea dating back to 1966, when the latter famously beat Italy in Middlesbrough during the World Cup.

The tour party, comprising Wieczorek and 14 players, left Heathrow airport this morning for Beijing, via Moscow. They are due to arrive in China tomorrow, spend one night in the Chinese capital, and then continue to Pyongyang, where they will spend four days and play two matches against local women’s teams.

Since news broke about the venture, Wieczorek has been inundated with media requests from hundreds of newspapers, TV channels and radio stations everywhere from Britain to Australia and all points in between: CNN, the BBC, Al-Jazeera, Nippon TV and assorted European newpapers are among those who have called.

“Actually it’s been a bit overwhelming,” she told sportingintelligence shortly before the party boarded their first flight. “I’m just looking forward to getting away from the attention and getting out there. We’ve been told we’ll have to give up our phones when we arrive; the players will be devastated but I’ll be jumping for joy.”

Wieczorek says the most exotic location she has visited before was Egypt, on holiday. “I really don’t have any preconceptions about what we’re going to experience in North Korea,” she added. “Yes, it’s a long way away in all senses, and it’s a closed country in many ways, but we have this link back to 1966 and I’m a firm believer that football really can help to break down barriers in all kinds of situations. In my work in the community programme, for example, we have some children who won’t listen [at school] and are seen as difficult, but we get all kinds of results out of then via football. The game is a force for good, I know.”

The North Korean squad from 1966 made an emotional return visit to Middlesbrough in 2002, and the surviving members, including Pak Do Ik, who scored the winner against Italy, will meet MFC Ladies in Pyongyang. The trip has been arranged in cooperation with the British Embassy in Pyongyang, a specialist travel agency, Koryo Tours, and is being sponsored by CLSA, an independent Asian investment group. Koryo Tours is run by an Englishman, Nick Bonner, who has helped to make a series of award-winning documentaries about North Korea during a 17-year association with the country. One was ‘The Game of their Lives’, about the 1966 World Cup team.

“This is the first time a football team has visited North Korea purely on the basis of friendship, so it is quite unique,” Bonnersaid. “The people there love their football and have a special bond with Middlesbrough . . . Both 1966 and 2002 are seen as magical events by the North Korean people. There is no doubt about it that they came to England in 1966 as the enemy, as many English people had fought in the Korean War, but the people of Teesside adopted them as their team and they have never forgotten that.”

The MFC Ladies  play in the Northen Women’s Combination League, one of the four divisions within the third tier of the women’s game in England. The next level up contains the Northen and Southern national divisions, with the Premier League at the top, to become the FA Women’s Super League from March 2011.

North Korea’s women’s national team are ranked No6 in the world. England are No9. Wieczorek requested that her team play local club sides and not the national team so the games would be more competitive.

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