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The strange ballad of Choe Song Hyok

Th 18-year-old North Korean is at the center of a web that connects the Viola with Kim Jong-Un and I can’t believe I just wrote that.

@Fiorentinaaraby on Twitter

Choe Song Hyok burst onto the football world scene back in 2014 when he scored the opener against South Korea in the U16 World Cup final, a particularly important goal considering that it helped North Korea to a 2-1 win. Two years later, he carried the U17s to the round of 16 at the finals in Chile. It was perhaps the novelty as much as the talent, but a host of European clubs queued up to sign him, and Fiorentina surprisingly won the raffle.

He joined the Primavera in February of last year from hometown club Chobyong for an undisclosed fee, becoming the first North Korean player to every ply his trade in Italy. After 2 appearances off the bench, though, things started to get a little bit weird. Rumors began to swirl that the player’s signing bonus and around 70% of his salary were going directly back to fund the government in Pyongyang. The Viola, unwilling to contribute to an authoritarian government (or at least unwilling to deal with the press about it), terminated Choe’s contract this past July.

But the fine wheels of the legal system were already turning and the matter ended up reaching all the way to the Italian Parliament. The upshot is that nobody is sure anymore whether or not Choe’s contract was terminated legally, whether he’s still a Fiorentina player, or whether he ever was. Choe—or more realistically, someone in Pyongyang—took the matter to court, and the FIGC’s recent ruling was that the Viola had to honor the contract with him.

Fiorentina, however, are appealing to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. They request that the Court find that the contract was invalid when Choe signed because, unbeknownst to them, it violated various UN and EU sanctions, thereby waiving any Viola responsibility to honor the contract. Failing that, it seems that the Gigliati have other evidence they would like admitted to the hearings that the FIGC refused to hear.

All in all, it’s become a real dog-and-pony show and sits in the Big Purple Book of Transfer Screw Ups as maybe the most unlikely spectacle ever, although heaven knows there’s plenty of competition (Houssine Kharja, take a bow). It’s hard not to feel terrible for Choe, though, who turned 18 today and probably just wants to play his football in peace like any other preternaturally talented teenager. You have to wonder Daniele Pradè’s and Fiorentina’s naivety in signing a player from such a legal quagmire of a nation, but at the end of the day, you hope it all comes together with Choe Song Hyok becoming the first North Korean international star, bringing a succession of silverware to Florence, and renouncing any authority Kim Jong-Un may have over him.