Few would have expected to see an 18-year-old from North Korea to burst onto the scene as quickly as Han Kwang-Song has
The young striker only signed for Cagliari at the start of March, he then became the first North Korean to play in Serie A as the Sardinians won away at Palermo. The next milestone arrived as he scored his first goal late on with a header as his side fell 3-2 at home to Torino and he’s clearly impressed enough with the club tying him down to a five-year contract. That is Han’s first professional deal as he had previously been registered on a youth contract.
As the first North Korean and first Asian player to play for the Sardinians, he’s naturally the subject of much interest with few accustomed to seeing players from the country more regularly in the news for its nuclear programme than its football even if Kim Jong-un is reportedly keen to invest in the sport.
Some of Italy’s worst moments in international history have been at the hands of both Koreas. The Azzurri were shocked by North Korea as they were eliminated in Middlesbrough at the 1966 World Cup while in 2002 Italy lost 2-1 after extra time to the South with the Ecuadorian referee Byron Moreno becoming public enemy number one after a controversial display. Perugia’s Korean pioneer Ahn Jung-hwan was made to pay the price as the club’s President Luciano Gaucci banished him from the Umbrian club for being from the nation which “ruined Italian football.”
Han was born in Pyongyang and his form for the national side paid a vital role in transporting him to Italy. He captained North Korea as they won the 2014 Under-16 Asian Championship and was a breakout star at the Under-17 World Cup as his side unexpectedly made it out of the group.
In recent years, North Korea has sent players to Barcelona in cooperation with Fundaciòn Marcet and Perugia with Italian Soccer Management so that they can develop as footballers, learn some of the language and teach others upon their return.
Fiorentina were the first team to aim to tap into the North Korean talent pool when they signed Han’s international teammate Choe Song Hyok. While he was also a highly-rated prospect, the deal turned into a quagmire as it ended up being discussed in the Court of Arbitration for Sport after the deal was terminated with various details breaching EU and UN sanctions. The transfer even ended up being discussed in the Italian parliament with the player’s wages reportedly being sent back to the government in Pyongyang.
Han was identified by the talent scout Alessandro Dominici and, oddly enough, the Forza Italia senator Antonio Razzi back in 2014 but he was unable to move to Italy until this year as he was under 18. Razzi is a politician who has caused controversy at times for his praise of North Korea in describing it as the Asian version of Switzerland and the safest country he knows.
After his impressive performances at the Viareggio Cup and his achievement in scoring his first goal in the top flight with less than 20 minutes played, Han looks to be a real prospect. While his nationality means that political issues will always be under the spotlight, Cagliari appear to have tied down a talented player from a country most know little about.
He’s a versatile and enthusiastic striker with an impressive record in youth international football who was also linked with Ajax and Genk. Massimo Rastelli appears to have faith in him and the youngster himself looks to have settled very well in Cagliari where he says he feels at home and comfortable with his teammates.
The Rossoblu appear to have avoided the diplomatic nightmare that Fiorentina were caught up in when they signed Song-Hyok Choe. The Viola were reportedly also supposed to sign Han but their loss looks to be Cagliari’s gain as the Sardinians appear to have a real talent tied down to a long-term deal.