Football

Son Heung Min: Huge achievement to be uninjured after N. Korea game

Spurs' S. Korean star taken aback by aggressive N. Koreans in World Cup qualifier

South Korea's footballers had no idea their surreal World Cup qualifier in Pyongyang would be played in an empty stadium - a match Tottenham Hotspur star Son Heung Min described as "very aggressive" and one official likened to warfare.

The match against North Korea, which ended 0-0 on Tuesday, was almost completely blocked off from the outside world, with Fifa president Gianni Infantino among just a handful of spectators.

It was the first competitive encounter between the men's sides hosted by the North - a historic face-off between two countries still technically at war - but took place with no live broadcast and no foreign media in attendance.

Until the very last minute, the South's team had no idea that even North Korean spectators would be absent.

"We expected 50,000 people to come pouring in once the door opened, but they didn't come," said Korea Football Association vice-president Choi Young Il as the team arrived at Incheon airport yesterday.

"The gates never opened. I was really surprised. The players and coach were surprised too."

Choi said he had asked a North Korean official about the absence of local fans, and was met with a retort: "Maybe they didn't want to watch it."

Son, who captained the South Korean team, was taken aback by the North's rough tactics.

"The match was very aggressive to a degree that it's a huge achievement just to return safely without being injured," said Son, whose Spurs side face Watford in the English Premier League tomorrow.

"There was a lot of severe swearing."

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 one another.

"Emotions run high," Bergstrom wrote in a tweet.

Choi added he had never seen such aggression on the pitch before: "It was like war."

RAISED TENSIONS

Tuesday's match came in the wake of a series of North Korean missile tests that raised tensions in the region, and after the breakdown of talks with the United States over Pyongyang's weapons programmes.

The North's official Korean Central News Agency issued only a two-line dispatch on the match, saying: "The game of attacks and counter-attacks ended in a draw."

Infantino said he was "disappointed" and "surprised" by the absence of fans, along with other issues.

He had previously proposed the idea of the two Koreas jointly hosting the 2023 Women's World Cup, after both countries' presidents Moon Jae In and Kim Jong Un had agreed last year to explore a joint bid to host the 2032 Olympics.

In a commentary yesterday, the South's Joongang Daily said: "We may just have to thank North Korea for sending our football team back home safely.

"How can South Korea think of co-hosting the Olympics with such a treacherous counterpart?"

Similarly, South Korean fans were outraged, having had to settle for basic text updates by Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation throughout the match.

"How can a country that blocks spectators and bans live broadcasts host the World Cup?" asked an online user.

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 added that it was "very disappointing" that the North did not allow the live broadcast of the match. - REUTERS, AFP

Football