by AFP/ pic by AFP
SEOUL – A World Cup qualifier like no other kicked off in Pyongyang on Tuesday, with North and South Korea playing to an empty stadium in a match almost completely blocked off from the outside world.
The showdown between the two sides – whose countries are still technically at war – got underway at the Kim Il Sung stadium with no live broadcast, no supporters and no foreign media in attendance.
The only simple way to follow the game, which the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) had billed as “one of the most eagerly anticipated fixtures” for years, was via the limited online text commentary posted on FIFA and AFC websites.
The match was scoreless at half-time with North Korea’s Ri Yong Jik shown a yellow card in the 30th minute, according to FIFA.
It was the first-ever competitive North-South men’s match to be played in Pyongyang and frustrated South Korean fans, who were not allowed to travel to the game, will have to wait days to see it on television.
“North Korea promised to provide a DVD containing full footage of the match before our delegation departs,” the South’s unification ministry, which handles cross-border affairs, said in a statement.
A photo posted on the website of the South’s Korean Football Association (KFA) showed the match in progress with giant floodlights illuminating the empty stands.
Among the tiny number of spectators was FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who flew in to Pyongyang earlier in the day.
“It’s a great pleasure to be here,” Infantino, sporting a North Korean flag lapel pin, said as he was welcomed at the airport by the head of the North Korean Football Association, Kim Jang San.
The South Korean team – including Tottenham’s star striker Son Heung-min – had arrived in Pyongyang on Monday accompanied only by their coaches and support staff.
The delegation had to leave their mobile phones at the South Korean embassy in Beijing ahead of their departure, and reaching the team in Pyongyang has been a struggle.
“Nothing is guaranteed in terms of communication so we have to use whatever works at any given moment,” a KFA official said, adding they were currently relying on emails.
A Monday evening press conference by South Korean coach Paulo Bento was attended by five North Korean journalists and two KFA staff, who had to return to their hotel to get an internet connection before posting details of the briefing on the association website.
AFC general secretary Windsor John said the restrictive arrangements were only to be expected.
“We understand DPR Korea’s situation,” John told AFP, using the official name for North Korea. “We are not surprised.”
The match comes in the wake of a series of North Korean missile tests that raised tensions in the region, and after the breakdown of talks with the United States over Pyongyang’s weapons programmes.
Since the collapse of the Hanoi summit between leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump in February, Pyongyang has regularly excoriated Seoul, ruling out prospects of inter-Korean dialogue.
It is a far cry from the cross-border warmth of last year, when South Korean President Moon Jae-in seized on the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics to broker the Pyongyang-Washington talks process and held three summits himself with Kim.
Back then, the pair discussed and agreed on further sports exchanges including a joint bid to host the 2032 Olympics.
South Korean football fans were outraged over the blackout and demanded that the North be held accountable for not following international standards.
“A game that’s not broadcast live is completely meaningless,” a fan commented online.
Another fan added: “If North Korea does not allow live broadcasts, it should be kicked out from international federations.”