Footballers Return from 'Nightmarish' Match in Pyongyang

  • By Cho Yi-jun, Kim Myong-song, Chang Min-seok

    October 17, 2019 11:42

    South Korea's national football team returned to Seoul on Thursday morning from what one official called a "nightmarish" five-day trip to Pyongyang for a World Cup qualifier in an empty stadium.

    The nightmare began as soon as the athletes landed at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport. They were told to list every item in their bags, some having to rewrite their list several times after airport officials pointed out things they had missed.

    The Korea Football Association had brought three boxes of meat and seafood to feed the players, but those were confiscated on arrival. One KFA official said, "It took more than three hours to leave the airport due to all the procedures."

    They arrived in Pyongyang at 4:30 p.m. on Monday, but by the time they finally headed to their hotel it had grown dark. A KFA official said, "We could feel that the North Koreans didn't want anyone to know that we were here. It looked like they intentionally dragged out the inspections to move us around under cover of darkness."

    Son Heung-min talks to reporters on arrival at Incheon International Airport on Thursday after an inter-Korean match in Pyongyang. /Yonhap

    The players and entourage had to leave their mobile phones at the South Korean embassy in Beijing before heading to Pyongyang. They were not even allowed to bring books.

    All they could do, therefore, was spend their time sleeping in their hotel rooms. North Korean security guards were stationed at the hotel entrances so they were not even able to go out for a breath of fresh air.

    On arrival at Kim Il-sung Stadium on Tuesday for the match, the players were surprised to find it empty. "Many soldiers and medical staff stood in each passageway of the stadium, so we thought the spectators would arrive before the match, but we ended up playing without an audience," a KFA official said.

    South Korean footballers arrive at Incheon International Airport on Thursday after an inter-Korean match in Pyongyang. /Newsis

    The next day the players were once again holed up in their hotel rooms until they headed to the airport. One international media outlet described the qualifying match as "ghost derby."

    The match could also not be broadcast because North Korea is currently in a deep sulk and would not talk to South Korea. FIFA boss Gianni Infantino, who had flown to Pyongyang to watch the game, said he was "disappointed."

    There were also calls to punish North Korea for letting political considerations interfere with the match.

    Cheong Wa Dae was floored, having hoped to restart some sort of dialogue with the North. A senior presidential official told reporters Wednesday, "I know that many South Koreans hoped sports would play the same catalytic role as the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in bringing peace, but I'm sorry to say that this did not happen."

    Mindful of criticism for being pushed around by North Korea, the Unification Ministry hinted it could file a complaint against the North with FIFA. Ministry spokesman Lee Sang-min told reporters, "If there were any violations of FIFA regulations, I believe there is a process for the KFA to file a complaint." But he added, "It was not part of a sports exchange agreed between the South and North but a second-round qualifier for the World Cup in Qatar." No other government officials here commented.

    A KFA official said, "We will take a comprehensive look at the delays experienced at the airport and [the North's] refusal to allow media coverage and then raise the issue."

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