Reuters/ Seoul, South Korea
South Korea were happy to have made it back from Pyongyang in one piece after Tuesday’s brutal 2022 World Cup qualifier, with a Korean FA official describing the physical encounter as being “like war”.
The game, the first between the two teams on North Korean soil in 30 years, ended in a 0-0 draw and was played out in front of empty stands. There was no broadcast of the game after the North refused to screen it live.
Reclusive North Korea and the rich, democratic South are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
Last year saw a flurry of sports diplomacy between the two but ties have since cooled over stalled negotiations over the North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Tottenham Hotspur striker Son Heung-min said it had been a bad-tempered match.
“To be honest, the game was so tough that I think we were very lucky already to be back with no one injured,” he told reporters yesterday upon arrival at Incheon airport via Beijing.
“We could even hear many of very offensive curses from the other side.”
Choi Young-il, vice-president of the South’s Korea Football Association (KFA), said the North Korean players had been overly aggressive.
“It was like war,” he said.
“They would use everything from elbows to hands to knees to fend off our players. It was really difficult.”
Each side received two yellow cards.
“North Koreans wouldn’t even make eye contact when I talked to them, not to mention respond,” Choi said.
Choi said the KFA planned to discuss whether it will raise a complaint with world governing body FIFA or the Asian Football Confederation about North Korea’s handling of the game.
In a video shared on Twitter by the Swedish ambassador to North Korea Joachim Bergstrom, Son appeared to be trying to play peacemaker as players from the sides confronted each other.
“Emotions run high,” Bergstrom wrote in a tweet. He was among only a handful of spectators allowed at the match along with FIFA President Gianni Infantino.
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.
South Korea’s Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul in charge of inter-Korean affairs said yesterday it was “very disappointing” that the North did not allow the live broadcast of the match.