South Korea make historic North Korea visit but without their fans
World Cup qualifier is teams’ first competitive men’s game in the country and pits Tottenham’s Son against ‘North’s Ronaldo’. The two Koreas meet on Tuesday in Pyongyang, where officials will hope that this World Cup qualifier ends in a better fashion than the last. The abiding memory of the Seoul game in April 2009 was the eternally glum North Korea coach Kim Jong-hun striding into the post-match press conference flanked by two minders. Taking no questions, the trenchcoated tactician accused the hosts of poisoning his players and then stormed out, pushing bewildered South Korea FA officials out of the way. There was a much more positive atmosphere in the qualifier that had been scheduled to be held in Pyongyang a few months earlier. With the two countries technically still at war, Dear Leader Kim Jong-il moved the home tie to Shanghai as the prospect of seeing the flag of the south flutter and its anthem ring around the stadium named after his (and the nation’s) father Kim Il-sung was a bit too much. The game in China was an emotional affair with fans from both sides of the 38th parallel in fine voice. At the end, the southern players bowed to the white-clad northern cheer squad and were warmly clapped and vice versa (well, the north’s players did not bow but did acknowledge the crowd). Even the watching Chinese journalists were moved and talked wistfully of doing the same with Taiwan one day. At least both episodes distracted from the football on display as games between the rivals are often dull. The desire not to lose does not help, resulting in plenty of huff and puff and little else. The atmosphere is often surreal too, because of neutral venues or supporters in the south being a little unsure how to act when faced with their fellow Koreans. There is more needle when both face former coloniser Japan and even China. This time could be different. Nobody knows what Pyongyang will be like. South Korea have played there only once, in a 1990 friendly which remains the north’s only victory in this fixture (the women played at the Kim Il-sung Stadium in 2017 in an Asian Cup qualifier). The DPRK capital is more a novel than an intimidating football experience, with a World Cup qualifier against Iran in 2005 an exception when fans stormed the visitors’ dressing rooms and bus after a controversial defeat. The FA in Pyongyang has made it clear to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) that this is just another game against just another team but that is not the case and not just because relations between the countries are currently frosty. The federation has been communicating with the AFC and did not respond to requests for information from its Seoul counterpart. There will be no South Korean journalists or fans allowed and the game is not even being televised. On the flip side, there is the joint Korean bid in the offing for the 2023 Women’s World Cup (an idea raised by Fifa) which means it is in a lot of people’s interest that it goes smoothly off the pitch. Given the fact that four goals have been scored in the past six meetings between the teams (South Korea got three of those), being unable to watch may not be a big deal but then the pair have a little more attacking talent these days. There’s Son Heung-min of course, ready to make his first derby appearance. Son, recently linked with Napoli in the Italian media and with Real Madrid in the Korean, has rarely managed to look quite as good for his country as for his club Tottenham Hotspur even if he did score twice in an 8-0 thrashing of Sri Lanka, ranked 202 in the world, last week. The result means that both Koreas have six points from two games, though only the winners of the five-team group are certain of a place in the next stage. There are calls for Son to partner the in-form Hwang Hee-chan, last seen scoring for Salzburg against Liverpool after making Virgil Van Dijk look a little foolish. Son and Hwang may fancy their chances. North Korea are not the miserly hard-working defensive unit of a decade ago. In recent years they have become one of Asia’s most unpredictable teams. The Chollima lost six straight games at the turn of the year, conceding no fewer than 27 goals against Bahrain, Qatar, Uzbekistan, Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Things have tightened up since, with two conceded in the past five, though the opposition have been weaker. Much depends on Han Kwang-song, the explosive forward who recently joined Juventus. Called ‘The North’s Ronaldo’ in Seoul, this No 7 has had an expansive football education in Pyongyang, Spain and Italy. Qatar 2022 is a long shot though. Unlike for the 2010 tournament, North Korea look short of the quality needed to get to the World Cup but beating the south, aiming for a 10th successive appearance on the global stage, for the first time in almost three decades would go down very well up in Pyongyang and perhaps ensure that the headlines this time are football ones.