On Tuesday, Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-Min participated in a match between the national football teams of both North and South Korea. The two sides, who hadn’t played a competitive match against each other for 30 years and whose countries are still technically at war, battled to a hard-fought 0-0 draw.
This was an historic football match. It was also deeply, deeply weird. The game was played at the Kim Il-Sung stadium in Pyongyang, a 50,000 capacity ground with an artificial turf field. There were no spectators, nor were there any plans to broadcast it in any form. The press was not invited to cover the match. Ahead of the game, it was thought that the only way to follow along might be via fax. It turns out, there were official updates that were provided by the DPRK federation, which was then passed on via South Korea and out to various news outlets who were tracking the match. Very little detail was provided, as is evident by this hilarious “live stream” by football.london.
What we learned about the match we learned after the fact. FIFA president Gianni Infantino was reportedly in attendance at the match and expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of spectators and the media blackout. The KFA (South Korean federation) may lodge a formal complaint with FIFA in the coming days over the way the team was treated by its hosts.
As far as the match itself goes, it sounds like it was an extremely physical affair. Sonny talked about how there were numerous hard challenges and confrontations on the pitch, and that he felt lucky that someone wasn’t hurt.
“The opponents were very rough, and there were moments when very abusive language was exchanged. It was hard to concentrate on the match because you were thinking about avoiding injury first ... It’s an accomplishment that we returned from a game like that without injury.”
It’s unlikely we’ll ever get to see this match, or even highlights — while North Korea provided a DVD of the match to South Korea, the quality was apparently poor and it’s unlikely to be distributed to media outlets for distribution.
The DPRK and South Korea were improbably drawn into the same World Cup qualifying group along with Lebanon, Turkmenistan, and Sri Lanka, a curious decision considering FIFA arranged for Ukraine and Russia to avoid each other in the same round of competition. After Tuesday’s draw, nothing has changed — the two teams remain tied at the top of the group with seven points from three matches.
Despite all of this, there were no major international incidents and nobody got hurt. In a match as potentially fraught as this one was, that’s probably the best possible news that could come out of it. South Korea will host the DPRK in the return fixture in June, 2020.