North Korea was part of the “axis of evil” identified by George W. Bush when US president and it is subject to sanctions over its nuclear weapons programme but, for a little-known Italian sportswear company, politics is no obstacle to sponsoring the country’s World Cup team.
The stable of football clubs sponsored by Legea ranges from Welsh champions New Saints to struggling Italian sides, but its recent deal with North Korea marks the company’s debut in the World Cup big time.
“We don’t have the power of Nike and Adidas so we have to find other ways for people to speak about us,” said Giuseppe Marinelli, Legea’s head of marketing. “Political issues have nothing to do with us,” he adds.
For North Korea, which is reported to have turned down an offer of sponsorship from a Chinese company, the deal represents a welcome injection of cash.
Mr Marinelli declined to reveal details of the contract, involving supply of the team’s all-red kit bearing the Legea logo. However, he said it was less than the €4m ($4.8m, £3.3m) over four years previously reported and included “a little cash”.
Legea said it contacted the North Korean football federation two months ago and haggled over the telephone for three days. North Korean officials visited company headquarters in Pompei, near Naples, and a deal was struck. “Their way of thinking was rather different from that in the west, but we finally succeeded,” Mr Marinelli said.
Ranked 105th in the world, North Korea kick off on Tuesday against Brazil in Johannesburg in the G “group of death” that includes Portugal and Ivory Coast. Star striker Jong Tae-a is known as “the People’s Wayne Rooney”, after the England striker. But his partner in attack, Kim Myong-won (“The Chariot”), will have to play as goalie, if at all, because of a North Korean mix-up in submitting the names of its squad members.
Sponsorship by an Italian company also carries some irony, as the last time North Korea competed in the World Cup, in 1966, they caused one of the biggest upsets in soccer history by defeating Italy 1-0.
“It’s a good deal,” said Nigel Currie, director of brandRapport, a UK sponsorship consultancy. He described the move as a “backdoor entry” for Legea into the expensive world of high exposure dominated by the big brands, which pay the top teams tens of millions of euros a year in sponsorship.
“They will get unbelievable exposure. Chucking the politics aside, to get in front of a cumulative audience of 26bn, it is a good way to do it. Politics won’t come into people’s thinking . . . and once you get to a reasonable size in this market you get bought by Nike or Adidas.”