Football Tribe SEA Editor
You don’t often find football clubs being named after dates on a calendar, but as today’s April 25th, the opportunity has presented itself for an article regarding a football team named after the date to be written. Otherwise known as 4.25, April 25 Sports Club is a perennial giant of North Korean football, whose leagues are just as mysterious as anything else that happened within the hermit state. Despite having almost little to none information regarding them due to North Korea’s secretive policies regarding information, April 25 did took Asian football by storm last year by advancing all the way to the 2019 AFC Cup final, where they were defeated 1-0 by Al-Ahed of Lebanon. The final itself was supposed to be played in Pyongyang, where April 25 was based, but due to North Korea’s decision to ban television transmission of football games, the match was initially moved to Shanghai in China, before being moved again to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.
Despite being called April 25, the team was formed in either March of 1947 or June of 1949, as the Central Sports Training School Sports Club. However in the early 70s, the club rebranded themselves into their current name, April 25 Sports Club. April 25 was a significant date in North Korean history, as it was the date when the Joseon People’s Revolutionary Army was formed. Established by Kim Il-sung as an anti-Japanese guerilla army, it serves as the predecessor of the Korean People’s Army, the de facto military forces of North Korea. With their choice of naming, it became clearly obvious that April 25 is affiliated directly to the Korean People’s Army.
Though little information can be dug up about the North Korean top flight, April 25 have established themselves as the team to beat in the North Korean league, winning a staggering 19 titles with their last one coming in 2018-19 – which was last season. They have also won a menagerie of prizes within the North Korean domestic competitions – 4 Hwaebul Cups, 7 Mangyongdae Prizes, 3 DPR Korea Championships, 3 Ponchonbo Torch Prizes, and a Paektusan Prize. Even before their AFC Cup run last season, April 25 already has Asian pedigree – they finished fourth in the 1990-91 Asian Club Championship, the predecessor to the AFC Champions League. April 25 took on the likes of Nissan Yokohama (the predecessor of Yokohama F. Marinos) of Japan, Liaoning FC of China, and Esteghlal of Iran, eventually making their way to the semifinals where they were beaten by Liaoning. The third-placed match pits April 25 against Indonesia’s Pelita Jaya (the predecessor of Madura United), who beat them in a penalty shootout.
After a long hiatus from AFC competitions, April 25 made their comeback in 2017 and soon established themselves as a regional behemoth. With the giants of Japan, China, and South Korea competing in the more prestigious AFC Champions League, North Korean teams such as April 25 are given free reign to dominate the East Asia Zone of the AFC Cup, with only clubs from Hong Kong (such as Kitchee and Tai Po) being the closest ones to match North Korean teams in regional dominance within the competition. This allows April 25 to quickly regain their stance within AFC competitions, advancing out of the East Asia Zone with relative ease since their return in 2017. Bengaluru FC of India proved to be too much for April 25 in 2017, however teams such as Home United (Singapore), Dhaka Abahani (Bangladesh), and Hanoi FC (Vietnam) were eliminated by April 25’s prowess. April 25 were eliminated from the 2018 AFC Cup on away goals by Turkmenistan’s Altyn Asyr after two draws, while the aforementioned 2019 season saw April 25 lose narrowly to Al-Ahed in the final.
As North Korea’s most successful team, April 25 have contributed a significant bulk of their players to the North Korea national team, with players such as An Il-bom, Sim Hyon-jin, Kim Yu-song, and Park Myong-song having represented the North Korea national team as April 25 players. For Il-bom and Yu-song, they have proven themselves as some of Asia’s deadliest attackers, with the former being the top scorer of the 2018 AFC Cup and the latter the 2017 edition of the competition. One might argue that they were facing off against subpar defenses of teams from Mongolia, Taiwan, or Macau, whose football teams are still struggling to reach the level of their North Korean and Hong Kong counterparts. However the two players, especially 25-year old Yu-song, have shown that they could keep up against the defenses of stronger teams such as Home United, Kitchee, Tai Po, or Hanoi, and some would say that both Il-bom and Yu-song should further their careers at bigger teams within the region. However, North Korea’s overall secretive and restrictive nature might serve as a hurdle for these two.
Despite being a regional giant, April 25 is a club that is shrouded in many mysteries due to the secretive nature of their country of origin. Apart from their continental exploits, we haven’t observed many of April 25’s prowess in the domestic stage. However it is indeed interesting to see April 25’s stars consistently defending their team’s dominance over the East Asia region in the AFC Cup, especially with the fact that April 25 employs a 100% local squad that is able to go toe to toe with other teams who often employ foreign players within their ranks. Sadly, with North Korean teams being absent from the 2020 AFC Cup, we must wait patiently until we can see the likes of Il-bom and Yu-song terrorizing defenses left, right, and center once again.