Pyongyang away an unforgettable experience even in defeat – hopefully Hong Kong won’t fare as badly

Playing soccer in North Korea’s National Stadium on National Day

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 March, 2018, 8:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 March, 2018, 8:02am

They call football the world game and I’d have to agree. I’ve been fortunate enough to have played games in some exotic destinations and against some diverse opposition. Beach soccer on Copacabana during the 2014 World Cup, a swamp soccer tournament in a muddy pool in the shadow of the Bird’s Nest, and an early morning kickaround with the Chinatown Soccer Club in the New York City snow would count among them, as would playing with child amputees on a dust patch in Cambodia or being schooled by the Irish Paralympic team ahead of the Beijing Games. But none of them compared to playing in the North Korean National Stadium.

That’s exactly what Hong Kong have to look forward to on March 27 when they visit Pyongyang with a place at the Asian Cup on the line. The stakes are high for both sides: win and they are through to next year’s tournament in the UAE in January.

The atmosphere is sure to be volatile at the 50,000-seater Kim Il-sung Stadium; the same venue was the scene for a riot in 2005 when the hosts faced Iran in a qualifying game for the 2006 World Cup in Germany and fans reacted badly to being denied a penalty.

The scene could not have been more different across the city four years later when the Chaoyang Park Rangers – a ragtag bunch of Beijing-based, expatriate and very amateur footballers, myself among them – played a team of North Koreans in the 30,000-seat Yanggakdo Stadium. Not because it was a smaller capacity or infinitely lower stakes but because there was not one supporter in the stands.

Not many from Hong Kong will be in the stands on March 27 either. Koryo Tours is organising the only trip to the game and it said one Hongkonger has booked among a handful of foreign tourists. There will be no press in attendance and the game will not be televised.

That’s par for the course in a country where the state’s propaganda machine is such that Kim Jong-il notched 11 holes-in-one in his first ever round of golf – and the North Korean team were shown to win the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, rather than going out in the group stages bottom of their group and on the wrong end of three defeats.

On the ground and in the ground, North Korea was a different story to the media’s representation. Although, that’s not to say it was without incident. Starting with a three-hour wait on the tarmac of Beijing Capital Airport in an aeroplane with no air-conditioning – not the last time that some of the party would get hot under the collar.

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As you might expect, organising a game of amateur football in North Korea is not the easiest thing in the world. It also gets no easier once you’re there and it is already arranged, with the effects of living in a constant state of war apparent in the way that arrangements change minute by minute and everything is constantly in flux. That, and we didn’t have a match ball.

That was a problem rectified by a hastily arranged diversion to the German embassy, which for some reason also operated as a de facto Adidas outlet. A bigger problem was the news from the powers that be that our three Americans would not be allowed to participate in the game. Tempers flared.

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This news kept changing, of course, right up until kick-off when it was deemed a “special exception” to allow them to play. Even then we were a man short and had to rope in the tour company’s intern to get to a full team. The opposition, made up of a mix of former members of the national team and sports students, had no such issues with a squad of about 40 there to make sure that North Korea triumphed on National Day.

We opened the scoring, although my plans to channel Castleton Gabriels player Matthew Russell’s goal celebrations by jumping in the stands and applauding it were scuppered by a running track and a 15-foot high concrete wall. After that it was all the hosts, tired legs, a lack of subs and generally being very bad at football all contributing to an 8-5 win for the hosts in a game that was the epitome of a friendly match with everyone involved seemingly delighted to be there and even more delighted to enjoy a post game beer in the August sun. Even the groundsman, who spoke some English, was delighted to have more, albeit poor, foreigners on his field and was very keen to know what we thought of his pitch after the game.

This was the ground where North Korea had played their penultimate World Cup qualifier, a 0-0 draw with Iran that moved them a point closer to South Africa, the country’s second World Cup after playing in England in 1966. After the game we were introduced to the goalkeeper of that original World Cup squad in the lobby of our hotel.

We may have lost – and handsomely at that – but it was an experience to remember and one that would only have come around through football. Hong Kong’s trip is not likely to be as welcoming but it will be unforgettable nevertheless. Let’s just hope somebody remembers the match ball.