South Korea’s Tottenham Hotspur star Son Heung-min said the historic World Cup qualifier in Pyongyang was a “very aggressive” match that made him fear injuries, with North Korean players even swearing at him and his teammates.
The match in the North Korea capital ended 0-0 on Tuesday, in front of Fifa president Gianni Infantino but in an otherwise empty stadium and almost completely blocked off from the outside world.
The showdown between the two sides – whose countries are still technically at war – took place at Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Stadium with no live broadcast, no supporters and no foreign media in attendance.
“It’s too bad that we didn’t win, but the match was very aggressive to a degree that I think it’s a huge achievement just to return safely without being injured,” Son told reporters upon returning to Incheon airport on early Thursday morning.
“North Korean players were sensitive and aggressive... There was a lot of severe swearing [from them].”
Choi Young-il, the vice president of Korea Football Association, added: “It was like war. I’ve never seen such [aggression] in football until now.”
About the empty stadium, however, Son, who captained South Korea, said he wasn’t shocked. “It rather made me think that [the North Koreans] thought us as a strong team.”
South Korean players were not allowed to use their cell phones during their stay in Pyongyang, but the star player said he personally didn’t mind.
“I liked it because I got to sleep a lot,” he said.
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.
South Korea’s coach Paulo Bento said the qualifier was “not a good match”, saying it “halted too frequently” as the referee was forced to repeatedly give warnings to players.
Fifa president Infantino said he was “disappointed” after attending the event.
“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 said in an interview published on the Fifa website.
“We were surprised by this and by several issues related to its live broadcast and problems with visas and access for foreign journalists.”