Kicking Off in North Korea

 

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There won’t be many that get to see domestic football in North Korea in their lifetimes, but luckily guest writer Tim Hartley went to a match in Pyongyang under the shadow of the bomb, and shares his fascinating experience…

Pyongyang 2 v 1 Amrokgang (14.04.2013)

You’ll not hear Jeff Stelling saying, “There’ll be dancing on the streets of Pyongyang tonight,” anytime soon. Or anyone else for that matter. Because the North Koreans take their footie as seriously as their politics. And that is very seriously. But this was the country’s match of the day – Pyongyang, from the capital, versus Amrokgang, the crack army outfit.

The game was a sell-out though you’d never guess it. As we entered the 50,000 seater Kim Il-Sung Stadium below the watchful eye of the Eternal President and Great Leader, not forgetting his son Kim Jong-Il, there was no-one to be seen. There were no queues, no turnstiles and certainly no hot dog stands or programme sellers.

Once inside it was a different matter. Every seat was taken and row upon row of men sat silently, wearing identical dark suits and red ties, everyone sporting a tiny enamel badge on their left breast. No, not of Pyongyang FC, but of the Great Leader himself. At Cardiff we didn’t even do this for John Toshack.

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Tim pictured outside the Kim Il-Sung Stadium…

The artificial pitch looked immaculate under the spring morning sun. Kick off was at half past nine in the morning, but then it was a bank holiday to celebrate the 101st birthday of, yes, you’ve got it, Kim Il-Sung. Maybe it was the early start but there were no chants and no flags or scarves in sight, just a quiet murmur around the darkened rows of seats. Many of the fans were soldiers in green uniforms and broad brimmed hats. I don’t know if they were under orders to attend but some were quietly reading paperback and showed no interest in the game.

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Amrokgang looked stronger in the first half though it was a scrappy match. The 3G pitch and a ball which seemed to bounce and sway at the slightest touch didn’t help. Pyongyang fought back and won a penalty though you would be hard pressed to know that from the reaction of the crowd. There was none.

My travelling buddy Chester turned to me. “It’s not football is it? Really.” So we decided to inject some old style terrace atmosphere of our own and chanted, “One nil to the referee, one nil to the referee.” The dozen or so westerners who had joined us in the VIP box (at 30 Euros a seat – hard currency only please) laughed at us. One or two even joined in as we grew bolder. “Pyongyang ooh ooh! Pyongyang ooh ooh!” But the locals just stared at us. In a land where it appears you must ask permission to speak, this show of individuality, of spontaneity, was not seen as rude, or aggressive. They stared blankly at us. I think they thought we were just, well, a little odd.

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Our every movement in North Korea had been strictly controlled. Two guides led us from the front while the mysterious Mr L- who hardly spoke, brought up the back of our tour group. Was he minding us or making sure our guides kept to the strict party line that all was rosy in this socialist utopia? We had only just made it into the hard-line communist country. The day before we arrived the present leader Kim Jung-Un had threatened a nuclear attack on America and had warned foreigners that their safety could not be guaranteed. BBC World news would later report this game as an attempt by the country’s leaders to show that it was ‘business as usual’ during these dangerous times. Me, I just wanted to watch some football.

“So football is big here in Korea is it Mr L-?” I thought this would be the perfect ice breaker. “Yes. All men love it,” he said. Success, I thought. He speaks. Apparently there are three leagues in North Korean football but because they all play at different times of the year and the country’s dubious player transfer history, these clubs cannot play in south Asian club tournaments. Mind you I cannot think of a single north Korean playing outside his country, dodgy transfer or otherwise.

The national side uses the official name of the country, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. They won’t use ‘North’ because they say they are one country even though they are still technically at war with the south since the end of the civil war in 1953. Their greatest footballing moment came in the 1966 World Cup when they beat Italy 2 – 0 to reach the quarter finals. They also qualified for the 2010 finals. In South Africa, North Korea’s coach, Kim Jong-Hun, told the media that he received “regular tactical advice during matches” from Kim Jong-Il “using mobile phones that are not visible to the naked eye” and purportedly developed by the Dear Leader himself. The team is struggling at the moment and has not qualified for next year’s World Cup in Brazil. Their last game was a goalless draw in a friendly against fellow communists Cuba.

PYO8Back on the pitch at the Kim Il-Sung stadium Amrokgang had got one back. Another penalty, though why the referee had to confer with the linesman is anyone’s guess. The Pyongyang striker was taken down five yards inside the box. In fact the ref was having a nightmare though you’d be hard pressed to know it. The technical areas were empty all game. Neither manager ventured out of the dugout and there was no high fiving or pats on the back when players were substituted. Now I like to watch controlled football, but not quite like this.

PYO7Surprise surprise there was some half time entertainment. A brass band piped up behind the goal. But immediately another band behind the opposite goal struck up. They were playing different tunes, not than anyone seemed to care. The match went into stoppage time as the fourth official held up two minutes. Pyongyang were pressing hard. “Surely it’s all over now?” said Chester. The clock showed they had played for 94 minutes. At last the crowd seemed to rouse themselves, if only a little, at the prospect of a goal. I looked at my watch but the referee didn’t look at his. Finally, Pyongyang scored with a low shot following some good interpassing. It was the very last kick of the most bizarre game I had ever watched.

Maybe the referee was under orders to ensure a home win on this special public holiday. Either way I would like to think the crowd went home happy. But with no emotion one way or the other on the faces of the soldiers and party faithful as they marched silently out of the Kim Il-Sung stadium, I simply could not tell.

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Sung & Kim Jung II at Mansu Hill…

Tim Hartley

Twitter: @timhhartley

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