A game of zeros in Pyongyang

South Korea's Hwang Hee-chan (left) fighting for the ball with North Korea's Kim Chol Bom during their 2022 World Cup qualifier at the Kim Il Sung Stadium in Pyongyang yesterday. The 0-0 draw meant South Korea stayed top of Group H with seven points,
South Korea's Hwang Hee-chan (left) fighting for the ball with North Korea's Kim Chol Bom during their 2022 World Cup qualifier at the Kim Il Sung Stadium in Pyongyang yesterday. The 0-0 draw meant South Korea stayed top of Group H with seven points, ahead of their northern neighbours on goal difference. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Qualifier between chilly Korean neighbours ends without goals, fans and TV coverage

ASIAN GROUP H

North Korea 0
South Korea 0

PYONGYANG • North and South Korea yesterday fought to a goalless draw in a historic but surreal 2022 World Cup qualifier that was played in front of an empty stadium and almost completely blocked off from the outside world.

While a women's Asian Cup qualifier had been played in 2017, this was the first competitive men's match between the two Koreas to take place in Pyongyang, 29 years after their last friendly.

The Asian zone Group H clash between the two sides, whose countries are technically at war, took place at the Kim Il Sung Stadium with no live broadcast, no supporters and no foreign media in attendance.

The Asian Football Confederation had billed the clash as "one of the most eagerly anticipated fixtures for years", yet South Korea fans could only follow the most basic updates over social media, consisting of substitutions and yellow cards, after permission to show the game live or send any journalists was denied by the North Koreans.

They will also have to wait days to see it on TV, with the South Korean Ministry of Unification, which handles cross-border affairs, saying that its counterpart "promised to provide a DVD containing full footage of the match before our delegation departs".

But it seemed the prospect of a possible defeat by their fierce rivals was too awful for the North's leadership to contemplate as they reportedly even denied their own fans the chance to attend the match.

Photos showed empty stands, but the South Korean flag was at least flying in the stadium - a welcome change from the 2010 World Cup qualifiers when North Korea chose to host their games in Shanghai, after refusing to hoist the South's flag and play their anthem on their soil.

The surreal nature of the tie was underlined by the fact that Fifa president Gianni Infantino was in attendance. The Swiss-Italian, who was sporting a North Korean flag lapel pin, had flown in earlier and said at the Pyongyang International Airport that "it was a great pleasure to be here".

The NK News service, which is based in Seoul, reported that a few "complimentary" tickets had been sold to foreign diplomats.

  • 2-2 

  • The yellow cards count.

The service's founder, Chad O'Carroll, expressed his hope that Infantino would raise the issue over the blackout with local authorities.

"For sporting fans worldwide, hopefully, the reason he is going is to personally flag concerns about the restrictive way DPRK authorities have gone about hosting this match," O'Carroll said.

"The manner in which inter-Korean relations so often get politicised suggests that any initiative to jointly host major international sporting events risks being extremely challenging from a logistics point of view."

The South Korean team were given only an hour to train on the artificial pitch after arriving on Monday and had to leave behind their mobile phones at their embassy in Beijing. Given the challenging circumstances, the visitors should be the happier of the two teams.

The Taeguk Warriors, with seven points, remain top of the group, ahead of North Korea on goal difference.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2019, with the headline 'A game of zeros in Pyongyang'. Print Edition | Subscribe