INCHEON • South Korea's footballers had no idea their surreal World Cup 2022 qualifier in Pyongyang would be played in an empty stadium. Tottenham star Son Heung-min described the match surroundings as "very aggressive" while another official likened it to warfare.
The contest against North Korea ended 0-0 on Tuesday, with Fifa president Gianni Infantino one of a handful of spectators at a match almost completely blocked off from the outside world.
It was the first competitive encounter between the two men's teams hosted by the North, a historic face-off between two countries technically still at war, but it took place with neither live broadcast nor foreign media in attendance.
Until the very last minute, the South Korean team had no idea that even North Korean spectators would be absent.
"We expected 50,000 people to come pouring in once the door opened but they didn't come," said Korea Football Association (KFA) vice-president Choi Young-il as the team arrived back at Incheon Airport via Beijing early yesterday.
"The gates never opened. I was really surprised. The players and coach were surprised too."
He said he had asked a North Korean official about the absence of local fans but was told: "Maybe they didn't want to see it."
Son, who captained the South Korean team, was taken aback by the Northerners' rough tactics.
"The match was very aggressive to a degree that I think it's a huge achievement just to return safely without being injured," he said. "There was a lot of severe swearing."
It was like war. They would use everything from elbows to hands to knees to fend off our players. It was really difficult.
CHOI YOUNG-IL, Korea Football Association vice-president, on the strong-arm tactics the North Korean team deployed.
Choi added he had never seen such aggression on the pitch before: "It was like war. They would use everything from elbows to hands to knees to fend off our players. It was really difficult."
Tuesday's match came 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 US over Pyongyang's weapons programme.
Since the collapse of the Hanoi summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump in February, Pyongyang has regularly excoriated Seoul, ruling out prospects of Korean dialogue.
It is a far cry from the cross-border warmth last year, when South Korean President Moon Jae-in seized the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics to broker the Pyongyang-Washington discussion process. At the time, the leaders discussed and agreed on further sports exchanges, including a joint bid to host the 2032 Olympics.
In a commentary yesterday South Korea's Joongang Daily said: "We may just have to thank North Korea for sending our football team back home safely.
"How can South Korea think of co-hosting the Olympics with such a treacherous counterpart?"
Infantino, who previously proposed the idea of the two Koreas jointly hosting the 2023 Women's World Cup, said he was "disappointed" after attending the event.
Outraged South Korean fans, who had to settle for basic updates provided by Fifa throughout the match that were limited to yellow cards and substitutes, said they were fed up with sporting exchanges with the North.
"How can a country that blocks spectators and bans live broadcasts host the World Cup?" asked an online user.
The North provided a recording of the match on DVD but South Korean public broadcaster KBS cancelled plans to air it yesterday due to the poor quality of the footage.
Choi also said the KFA planned to discuss whether it will raise a complaint with Fifa or the Asian Football Confederation about North Korea's handling of the game.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS