Koreas face off in blacked-out World Cup qualifier

Seoul (AFP) – A World Cup qualifier like no other kicks off in Pyongyang on Tuesday, with pretty much the entire world shut out of the event.

North and South Korea — two countries technically at war — will step onto the Kim Il Sung stadium turf for a match with no live broadcast, no South Korean fans and no international media in attendance.

The only way to follow the game, which the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has billed as “one of the most eagerly anticipated fixtures” for years, will be via online commentary on FIFA and AFC websites, limited to goal scorers and substitutions.

It is the first-ever competitive North-South men’s match to be played in Pyongyang and frustrated South Korean fans will have to wait days before the game can be broadcast on television.

“North Korea promised to provide a DVD containing full footage of the match before our delegation departs,” the South’s unification ministry, which handles cross-border affairs, said in a statement.

The South Korean team — including Tottenham’s star striker Son Heung-min — arrived in Pyongyang on Monday accompanied only by their coaches and support staff.

The delegation had to leave their mobile phones at the South Korean embassy in Beijing ahead of their departure, and reaching the team in Pyongyang has been a struggle.

“Nothing is guaranteed in terms of communication so we have to use whatever works at any given moment,” an official at the Korea Football Association (KFA) said, adding they were currently relying on emails.

A Monday evening press conference at the Kim Il Sung stadium by South Korean coach Paulo Bento was attended by five North Korean journalists and two KFA staff, who had to return to their hotel to get an internet connection before posting details of the briefing on the association website.

According to the unification ministry, FIFA President Gianni Infantino was scheduled to attend the game — one of the few foreigners allowed given the North’s refusal to permit South Korean fans to travel.

The match comes in the wake of a series of North Korean missile tests that raised tensions in the region, and after the breakdown of talks with the United States over Pyongyang’s weapons programmes.

Since the collapse of the Hanoi summit between leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump in February, Pyongyang has regularly excoriated Seoul, ruling out prospects of inter-Korean dialogue.

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