Kicking off in North Korea

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Last month ‘From the Tofu Bowl’ asked where North Korea play their World Cup qualifying matches. With 140,000 seats the May Day stadium is the largest stadium in the world. It’s home to the famous for massed games where men and women in bright colours carry out the most amazing synchronised dance routines. 

But you won’t see any football here. As the club and national side play their football at the Kim Il-Sung stadium. So what’s that like? Travel writer and football fan Tim Hartley was lucky enough to go to a match there a couple of years ago.

Jeff Stelling 'Dancing on the streets of Pyongyang'

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 serious. But this was the country’s match of the day – Pyongyang, 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 City, we didn’t even do this for John Toshack.

The artificial pitch looked immaculate under the spring morning sun. Kick-off was at half-past nine, 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.
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 son and 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.

Strictly controlled 

Our every movement in North Korea had been strictly controlled. Two women guides led us from the front while the mysterious Mr M- 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 M-?” 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.

A look at the country 

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 qualified for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the second World Cup appearance in their history. North Korea has qualified for the AFC Asian Cup five times. I would be hard-pressed to name a North Korean player though one or two have played in the west. The current national team is composed of native North Koreans and Koreans born in Japan.

Back to the match 

Back 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 were no high fiving or pats on the back when players were substituted. Now I like to watch controlled football, but not quite like this. 

Surprise 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 was 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 inter-passing. 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. “Pyongyang ooh ooh! Pyongyang ooh ooh!”

A riot in North Korea 

Amazingly there was a riot at a football match in 2005 in that same Kim Il-Sung stadium which was a sea of tranquillity for my match. Soldiers and riot police had to step in as violence erupted when North Korea lost a World Cup qualifying match to Iran. Bottles, stones and chairs were thrown onto the pitch after a North Korean player were sent off. The unrest continued after the final whistle, and match officials were unable to leave the pitch for more than 20 minutes. Then thousands of angry fans surrounded the stadium preventing the Iranian players from getting on their bus. It reportedly took two hours to disperse the crowd so the Iranians could leave
"The atmosphere on the pitch and outside the pitch was not a sports atmosphere," Iran's coach Branko Ivankovic said after the match. "It’s very disappointing when you feel your life is not safe. My players tried to get to the bus after the game but it was not possible - it was a very dangerous situation." Andrei Lankov, a North Korea academic based in the South, said, "If I were Kim Jong-Il, I would be quite terrified. If people can riot about football, then they can as well about the food distribution or somebody's arrest. Something like this would have been unthinkable in Pyongyang ten years ago." 

As it would be today, but Kim Jong-Un is still in power and the prophecy of the regime collapsing of its own accord just isn’t coming true. And much as I enjoyed my visit to the Kim Il-Sung stadium it would have been nice to have seen just one game of football in the biggest sporting arena in the world.

Tim Hartley is a broadcaster and author. Follow him: 
Twitter - @timhhartley 
His world football travel diary, ‘Kicking off in North Korea,’ is available in paperback or kindle. 

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