As FIFA President Gianni Infantino heads toward Kim Il Sung Stadium in Pyongyang, he is in an excellent mood.
Only hours earlier, during a visit to a local football academy, he ordered his driver to pull over so he could play an improvised match with North Korean children. The North Koreans laughed when the president of world football’s governing body threw off his jacket and mingled with the pupils, all clad in red.
It is the afternoon of October 15, 2019. Infantino is visiting Pyongyang to watch a World Cup qualifier between longtime foes North and South Korea – two states that are technically at war.
It is an historic event.
Apart from a friendly in 1990, this will be the first official game ever hosted by the North against the South. North Korean officials have assured Infantino that all seats in the Kim Il Sung Stadium – named after the “eternal president” and grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un – will be filled.
The FIFA leader is buoyed by the fact that, only a few days earlier and half a world away, thousands of Iranian women were able to enter a football stadium for the first time in decades, after FIFA had voiced its displeasure at Iran’s controversial male-only policy.
So it is a promising time for sport diplomacy. Earlier this year, Infantino had suggested that North and South Korea should prepare a joint bid to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
But as he closes in on the venue – an area that should be bustling – Infantino gets a sense that something is not right.
When he enters the VIP box and looks out over the stadium, with its 50,000 red, white and blue seats, he realizes why. Bar a few officials and Pyongyang-based diplomats, the only spectators for this landmark game are the FIFA president and his entourage.
Kim Il Sung stadium is empty.
The bizarre outcome had been a long time coming.
In July 2019, at the headquarters of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in Kuala Lumpur, the draws were made for the World Cup 2022 qualifying groups. To great excitement, North and South Korea ended up together in Group H. The North was scheduled to host the first match.
But whether the match could take place in Pyongyang remained to be seen. Apart from a friendly in 1990, all official matches between the two Koreas were played outside North Korea.
Still, the year is different. The relationship between North and South has improved massively since early 2018, when, in a last-moment initiative, Pyongyang sent athletes to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. During the opening ceremony, athletes of both Koreas entered the stadium together under the Unification Flag.
Soon after, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a summit in the Demilitarized Zone. Those developments led to the historic summit in Singapore between Kim and US President Donald Trump. Only a few months earlier, the two leaders had been engaged in a high-tension war of words that many feared would escalate into the real thing.
At a second summit in Hanoi, negotiations broke down, but in June the two leaders met for a third time at the DMZ – and Trump became the first US president to set foot in North Korea, very briefly. The two agreed to quickly resume negotiations.
In July, the North Korean Football Association (PRKFA) announced the game would take place on October 15 at 5.30pm.
Simon Cockerell, general manager of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, a travel company specializing in trips to North Korea, is marketing a special football trip to Pyongyang. As well as the match, participants will visit the DMZ and a catfish farm.
“I thought it a reasonable assumption that the match would be held,” Cockerell tells Asia Times. “But I told customers that nothing is guaranteed. In North Korea, nothing is certain.”
South Korea’s Ministry of Unification hopefully sees the match as an opportunity to improve relations with the North. Ever since the failed summit in Hanoi, Pyongyang has slowed cooperation with Seoul. When Seoul offered Pyongyang 50,000 tons of rice to help the millions of underfed citizens, it is refused.
Ministry officials approach their counterparts at the joint Liaison Office, established in 2018, inside North Korea near the border city of Kaesong. Officials of both Koreas meet here twice a day, but for months, little substantive has been discussed.
The Southerners request visas for fans and journalists, and ask if the South’s team can travel the 120 miles from Seoul to Pyongyang overland. Normally, travelers to North Korea arrive via Beijing, where the North Korean embassy distributes visas.
The North Koreans don’t reply. “There was no chance for us to talk with the North on this issue,” a spokesperson from the ministry told Asia Times.
The ministry asks the South Korean Football Association (KFA) to assist. A KFA official consults with his counterpart in Pyongyang, via email, about practical matters like accommodation, food and training times. They copy FIFA and the AFC on every email. But when asked about visas, the PRKFA official says it is “not his decision.”
The North Koreans clearly have no intention of cooperating on the matter of fans and reporters. FIFA intervenes. Still, the North does not budge.
The South Koreans comfort themselves that they will at least have the opportunity to see the game live on television. Public broadcaster KBS is negotiating with the North’s state broadcaster through a third party in Japan. A contract has been signed and KBS has paid the North Koreans a deposit of $300,000.
A few days before the game, the North Koreans end talks. “They are smart,” a KFA official says. “They did the absolute minimum necessary to organize the game, but nothing more.”
Why? Experts point out that while Kim Jong-un wields absolute power in North Korea, different sections within the state and the party compete for power and influence.
“There is not one brain deciding what happens there,” a source who visits North Korea regularly told Asia Times. “It is entirely possible that the Football Association was allowed to organize the match because the promotion of sport is important, but later got overruled by another more powerful department that said security was more important.”
And Pyongyang is unhappy. North Korea wants South Korea to engage in commercial tourism and logistics projects in the North, but Seoul is trammeled by international sanctions. Meanwhile, critical talks between Pyongyang and Washington on denuclearization have broken down.
That is the political background. However, none of this affected the South’s game preparation.
South Korea’s national team is trying not be distracted. Portuguese coach Paulo Bento says he is unafraid of facing a stadium packed with 50,000 fanatical home team supporters. “Professional athletes would all want to compete before huge crowds,” he says. “I don’t think our players will be fired up to play at an empty stadium.”
Seoul’s Ministry of Unification announces some good news: The North promises to provide a DVD of the game. KBS announces a broadcast for the day the team returns to Seoul.
South Korean fans wave the national team goodbye at the airport. The North never replied to the request to travel overland, so the team flies to Beijing, where they stay overnight to await visas.
In Beijing, staff and players leave their phones at the South Korean embassy. “If a phone got stolen or hacked, that would lead to a whole new set of problems,” a source close to the team told Asia Times.
On the morning of the game, North Korean officials announce that all tickets are sold. “There were several indications that the stadium would be full,” according to a FIFA spokesman.
But during their warm-up, the South Koreans are sensing something is odd.
“I asked if something was wrong, but got no answer,” says a source close to the team. “We decided to concentrate on the match.”
Tour operator Simon Cockerell is in Pyongyang with eight tourists who signed up specifically for the football trip. They get nowhere. “I was truly amazed,” he said. “And after so many trips to the North I have a high bar of being amazed.”
Inside the huge stadium, there is no crowd and no TV crews – only two teams, on the pitch. Then kick-off and the match begins.
It is only thanks to Swedish Ambassador Joachim Bergström, that the outside world sees anything of the game. Bergström, a few meters away from the FIFA president in the VIP box, shares several images and videos of the match on Twitter. The pictures show stewards – soldiers, judging by their outfits – facing the stands, despite the lack of spectators.
The game ends in a goalless draw.
That’s a good result for North Korea – number 116 in FIFA rankings, far below South Korea’s 41st place.
North Korea’s official KCNA news agency issues a brief report saying the qualifier ended in a 0-0 draw after a series of “attacks and counter-attacks.”
It is the only line the North Korean regime communicates about the game. According to specialist media NK News, almost no one in Pyongyang is aware that a match that could have been historic had even taken place.
Gutted, Infantino requests an explanation from North Korean officials. He receives no reply. The same night, he sends out a press release full of frustration. “I was looking forward to seeing a full stadium for such a historic match but was disappointed to see there were no fans in the stands,” he writes.
Technically speaking, North Korea violated only one FIFA rule: Every host country has to accept foreign journalists. “Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are obviously paramount,” Infantino writes.
A host country is also obliged to allow spectators, but in this case North Korea can argue that there were spectators – officials in the VIP box.
FIFA later decides not to discipline North Korea. However, chances are slim that the country will be asked any time soon to organize a big sporting event, like the Women’s World Cup.
Two days after the game, South Korea’s players return home.
Captain Son Heung-min – Tottenham Hotspur’s star striker – complains about a “rough” game. “The opponents were pretty physical, and we exchanged some terse words,” Son told South Korean reporters. “Rather than focusing on the match, we started worrying about trying not to get hurt. It means a lot to have come out unscathed.”
Last hopes are soon dashed.
Immediately after landing, KFA officials use a mobile DVD player to check the contents of the recording they received. The video of the game is poor quality – unfit for broadcast. KBS cancels its planned broadcast.
In response to demand, the KFA organizes a limited viewing at its headquarters. Press agency Yonhap concludes that South Korean players “had trouble establishing themselves on offense against their hard-nosed opponents.”
The North Koreans stay quiet. A month afterwards, however, foreign diplomats in Pyongyang receive a warning to “stop sharing sensitive photos and video on their social media accounts with ‘impure intentions,’” NK News reports.
Since then, Ambassador Bergström has gone quiet on Twitter.
The optimistic Moon has made North-South relations his presidential flagship policy, but after the match, it is clear that Seoul is frustrated. Very frustrated. The KFA sends an official complaint to FIFA, then, in mid-December, Seoul withdraws from the bidding process for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, shooting down Infantino’s plan for a precedent-busting North-South hosting.
The FIFA president, who left Pyongyang by private jet directly after the game, has remained quiet since penning his statement. Still, one can sense the sports leader’s frustration.
“It would be naïve to think we can change the world from one minute to the next,” he wrote.
This article first appeared in Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant. It is exclusively reprinted in English by Asia Times with the writer’s permission.