Koreas meet in historic World Cup qualifier in Pyongyang

Koreas meet in historic World Cup qualifier in Pyongyang
Members of the South Korean football team pose for a photo before boarding an Air China flight to Pyongyang for a World Cup qualifier match against North Korea from the airport in Beijing on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The rival Koreas are set to meet in an historic soccer World Cup qualifier in Pyongyang, but the match has been cast into media darkness in the South, with the North disallowing South Korean reporters and spectators and refusing a live broadcast from Kim Il Sung Stadium.

The Seoul-based Korea Football Association has sent two staff to the North Korean capital to watch Tuesday’s game, but ruled out live text updates on its website because of uncertainties in internet connection, said Park Jae-sung, an official from the South Korean soccer governing body.

The KFA recommended that fans watch its social media accounts, where it planned to post any game information its employees manage to send from Pyongyang. Park said if that doesn’t work out, the KFA would have to relay updates from the Asian Football Confederation or from the sport’s world governing body, FIFA.

“We have no idea how things will be at the stadium,” Park said. North Korea has agreed to provide a recording of the match to South Korean officials before they leave the North, which would allow South Korean networks to play the game on tape delay, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which deals with affairs with the North.

The game would be the first competitive meeting between the national men’s teams in the North Korean capital, although the North hosted the South for a friendly there 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 for Tuesday’s game.

“There was no response from the North, and we find this regrettable and sad,” Lee Sang-min, spokesman of Seoul’s Unification Ministry, said during a briefing on Monday.

The KFA anticipates that its two Group H matches against North Korea and the away game against Lebanon will be critical in the Asian qualifying campaign for the 2020 World Cup in Qatar. The second match between the Koreas is scheduled for June 4 next year in South Korea.

South Korea has a stronger team on paper, led by the likes of Son Heung-min, a star for Tottenham in the English Premier League. But for Tuesday’s game, North Korea will have unique home advantage with the 50,000 capacity Kim Il Sung Stadium expected to be full and entirely devoid of South Korean fans.

Group H also includes Lebanon, Turkmenistan, and Sri Lanka.

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

The fate of the game in Pyongyang was uncertain until last month when the soccer’s Asian governing body informed the KFA that the North decided it would host the qualifier as scheduled.