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The big­gest take­away for Son He­ung-min from South Korea’s World Cup qual­i­fy­ing match against North Korea was how phys­i­cal his op­po­nents played.

South Korea’s na­tional foot­ball team de­scribed their World Cup qual­i­fier against North Korea in Py­ongyang as a “rough” match played un­der strange con­di­tions that may be raised with 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.

“The op­po­nents were very rough, and there were mo­ments when very abusive language was ex­changed,” Tot­ten­ham striker Son He­ung-min 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,” Son told re­porters at In­cheon In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

The team’s gen­eral man­ager Choi Young-il said the South Ko­rean foot­ball as­so­ci­a­tion, known as KFA, 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.

FIFA Pres­i­dent Gianni In­fantino also at­tended the match, and on Tues­day is­sued a state­ment say­ing he was “dis­ap­pointed to see there were no fans in the stands.”

“We were sur­prised by this and by sev­eral is­sues re­lated to its live broad­cast and prob­lems with visas and ac­cess for for­eign jour­nal­ists,” In­fantino said.

Py­ongyang’s of­fi­cial Ko­rean Cen­tral News Agency pub­lished only a brief match report, say­ing the “game of at­tacks and coun­ter­at­tacks ended in a draw 0:0.”

North Korea did pro­vide a DVD record­ing of the match to South Ko­rean foot­ball of­fi­cials, but South Ko­rean TV chan­nel KBS can­celed plans to broad­cast the game on tape de­lay be­cause of the video’s qual­ity, ac­cord­ing to the broad­caster and KFA.

“We prob­a­bly won’t get an­other video from North Korea,” said Park Jae-sung, a KFA of­fi­cial, adding the video was un­fit for South Korea’s high-def­i­ni­tion TV ser­vices

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 foot­ball 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.

Choi, a for­mer de­fender who played for South Korea dur­ing the 1994 World Cup held in the United States, said the North Kore­ans played like they were “wag­ing a war,” vi­o­lently swing­ing their el­bows and hands and driv­ing into their op­po­nents knee first when com­pet­ing for balls in air.

“I have never seen some­thing like this in foot­ball be­fore,” he said.

When they weren’t play­ing or train­ing, South Ko­rean play­ers and staff were holed up at the Ko­ryo Ho­tel, which ap­peared to have no other guests, Choi said. They had no out­side con­tact, hav­ing left their cell­phones at the South Ko­rean Em­bassy in Bei­jing be­fore en­ter­ing the North. Choi said North Ko­rean of­fi­cials didn’t in­form the South Ko­rean team the match would be played in an empty sta­dium.

“We got there an hour and a half early and kept think­ing that the gate will open and a crowd of 50,000 would pour in,” Choi said. “But the gate never opened un­til the end.”

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 dead­locked 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 Ko­rean Uni­fi­ca­tion Min­is­ter Kim Yeon-chul, Seoul’s point man on North Korea, said dur­ing a par­lia­men­tary ses­sion on Thurs­day that the way the North han­dled the game was “very dis­ap­point­ing” and re­flected the stale­mate in in­ter-Ko­rean re­la­tions.

Some ex­perts say the North was ex­press­ing its po­lit­i­cal dis­plea­sure with the South by shut­ting out ri­val re­porters and fans, but opted to com­pete in an empty sta­dium at home in an ef­fort to level the play­ing field and avoid ques­tions about fair­ness.

Oth­ers say North Korea might have been con­cerned about the pos­si­bil­ity of its na­tional team los­ing to the South in front of a mas­sive home crowd, which would have been a hu­mil­i­at­ing de­vel­op­ment for leader Kim Jong Un, who has a pas­sion for sports.

The awk­ward buildup to the game “demon­strates the im­mense dis­con­tent North Korea has for (South Korea)” for its fail­ure to break away from its U.S. ally and restart in­ter-Ko­rean eco­nomic projects held back by U.S.-led sanctions, said Choi Kang, vice pres­i­dent of Seoul’s Asan In­sti­tute for Pol­icy Stud­ies.

Dur­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tion for the 2010 World Cup, North Korea chose to host games against South Korea in Shang­hai, re­fus­ing to hoist the South Ko­rean flag and play the South Ko­rean an­them on its soil.


Son He­ung-min speaks about his ex­pe­ri­ences in North Korea on re­turn­ing to In­cheon In­ter­na­tional Air­port, Thurs­day.

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