South Korean soccer team tells of ‘rough’ match in Pyongyang

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – South Korea’s national soccer team described their World Cup qualifier against North Korea in Pyongyang as a “rough” match played under strange conditions that may later be reported to FIFA.

The historic match ended in a scoreless draw Tuesday at huge Kim Il Sung Stadium, which was empty of spectators. The match was also under a media blackout, and the South Koreans first spoke to journalists about the playing conditions upon their return to Seoul on Thursday.

Tottenham striker Son Heung-min said he would long remember the Pyongyang match as an unusual experience and claimed the South Korean players were lucky to avoid injury against the North Koreans, who he said were “very sensitive and rough.”

“Road matches can’t always be good – our players and staff had a hard time,” Son told reporters at Incheon International Airport.

The team’s general manager Choi Young-il says the South Korean soccer association will discuss whether to submit a complaint to FIFA over what he described as North Korea’s failure to properly accommodate the visiting team and decision to block media and spectators.

North Korea kept out South Korean media and spectators and refused a live broadcast from the stadium.

The North had been expected to have a unique home advantage in the 50,000-capacity stadium devoid of South Korean fans, but South Korean players and soccer officials were surprised to realize there would be no home crowd support, either.

Son said it was regrettable that South Korea, which has a stronger team on paper, couldn’t return with three points, but admitted that their opponents’ physical play got into the players’ heads.

“The opponents were very rough, and there were moments when very abusive language was exchanged,” Son said. “It was hard to concentrate on the match because you were thinking about avoiding injury first … It’s an accomplishment that we returned from a game like that without injury.”

The game was the first competitive meeting between the national men’s teams in the North Korean capital, although the North hosted the South in a friendly in 1990.

North Korea in recent months has severed virtually all cooperation with the South amid a standstill in nuclear negotiations with the United States, and repeatedly ignored the South’s calls for discussions on media coverage issues and allowing South Korean cheer squads ahead of the game.

South Korea’s two Group H matches against North Korea will be crucial in qualifying for the World Cup. The second match between the Koreas is scheduled for June 4 in South Korea.

Group H also includes Lebanon, Turkmenistan and Sri Lanka.

South Korean national soccer team player Son Heung-min answers a reporter’s question upon his arrival after the soccer match against North Korea, at Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Korea, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. North Korea held South Korea to a 0-0 draw Tuesday in a World Cup qualifying soccer match played in an empty stadium in Pyongyang, but specific details of the game weren’t immediately available. South Korean soccer officials were unable to watch a telecast of the historic game at Kim Il Sung Stadium and South Korean spectators and media were denied entry. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
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