Anybody who calls North Korea a nation where ‘25 million minus one do not have any opinion’ needs to watch a football game at Pyongyang’s 150,000-seater coliseum, the May Day Stadium. In a country infamous for its stoic silence, it’s in football that the locals find refuge, and an outlet. The emotions and expressions in the stands here aren’t any different from those in the famous terraces of Nou Camp, Old Trafford or San Siro.
A fortnight back, North Korea’s military club, 4.25, had been in Bengaluru for the first leg of the Asian Football Confederation Cup semi-final. The club’s name — 4.25 a.k.a April 25 — is a reminder of the day in 1932 when the Korean People’s Army was formed. On a rain-soaked night, India’s premier club, Bengaluru FC, had won 3-0.
To qualify for the inter-zonal final, the Korean club, in their home game, need to score four goals and concede none. Wednesday didn’t see a miracle or a spectacular comeback, with the goal-less draw taking Bengaluru FC to the final.
It wasn’t a popular result.
For most of the game, the crowd is restless. They jeer their star striker Kim Yu-song, urging the coach to replace him. Almost immediately, Song gets substituted. Minutes later, thousands in the stands go up in unison as a 4.25 player is fouled inside the penalty box. Referee awards a penalty. But their joy is short-lived. Bengaluru goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu saves Jin’s kick by diving low to his right. More finger-wagging, hand-wringing and tongue-lashing follow. The excitement seen at the start of the game all but fades.
The atmosphere had started to build a good two hours before the match. It isn’t a sell-out game, however, there are thousands crowding the aisles. Every fan in the stadium wears a tiny Kim Jong-un badge on the left breast.
On a podium near the entrance, a man in black suit is orchestrating loud chants. Every slogan, or song, that gets amplified from the stadium sound system, is repeated lustily by 100-odd teenagers — mostly the country’s youth players. Earlier in the day, they had all marched to the arena armed with drums and national flags. They sit under the sun, talking animatedly, and waiting for the kick-off.
The main stand, though, is quiet. Most of the seats are taken by men in identical suits and hats. Some are servicemen in worn-out khakis or soldiers in green uniform. They take swigs of Tadaeggong beer — locally produced ale — along with fried fish. Some puff cigarettes as they wait for the teams to emerge from the tunnel.
The seats are painted in national colours, with those ubiquitous portraits of the Kims hanging above the stands. On the other side of the stadium, which has a canopy roof, there is a giant flame and pillars decorated with Olympic rings.
The walls of the brightly lit stadium corridor are adorned with pictures of the country’s sporting heroes. Among them is pistol-shooter Kim Jong-su, who had won a silver and bronze at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Subsequently, he failed a dope test and his medals were withdrawn. The last bit of information hasn’t yet reached these parts. The stadium manager, who insists he be called Mr Kim, is not aware of the dope taint. Behind the iron curtain, Kim Jong-su still remains a national treasure. This country with very limited international exposure and no Internet access — they have Intranet — believes in scripting its own sporting narrative and weaving its own Olympic tales. There aren’t many news hounds in this part.
So it was a surprise to see about 10 journalists for the pre-match press conference, which took place in the bowels of the stadium in a room that has portraits of who else, the Kims. There seemed to be a lot of curiosity about Indian football. A mid-aged lady asked about the structure of the Indian league and the number of professional clubs in the country. The rest were the usual reporters’ queries: key players, strategy and so on. Bengaluru coach Alberto Roca, previously an assistant to Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona, patiently answered them all.
The mystery of the packed pre-match press conference got solved the next day. The designated media space is now half-full. It turns out the ‘journalists’ at the press conference on Tuesday are broadcasting helping hands, stadium emcee and technicians on Wednesday.
In the stands, the fans are soaking it in. Young boys watch the national stars in awe. Being a professional footballer has its benefits, for one they are exempted from compulsory military service.
Football remains the country’s most popular sport, with creditable international record. North Korea’s biggest footballing high remains their win over Italy in the 1966 World Cup. This is followed by the more recent qualification for the 2010 World Cup, where they scored a goal against Brazil. All this despite the country’s isolation from the the rest of the football world.
Around here, they don’t get to see top European leagues live. Once a week, either a Saturday or Sunday, there’s a wrap of games played across Europe. It has also led to a thriving black-market where CDs of Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar are sold for substantial amounts. That’s the reason North Korea’s football fraternity values watching live games at the stadium. It’s also the reason why this AFC encounter goes off smoothly despite the region’s volatile geopolitical situation.
Back to the stands, and the crowd is getting restless. In 2006, during a World Cup qualifying game against Iran, a contentious red card by a referee had resulted in a field littered with stones, bottles and even chairs. No such reaction for this AFC game.
Just then Antonio Dovale, Bengaluru’s Spanish midfielder, suffers a brutal knock on his lower back and needs medical help. There are few concerned faces in the stand. Once Dovale gets up, there are cheers. A volunteer drives the golf cart wildly and carries Dovale to the touchline. It’s the only time during their five-day visit is anyone from Bengaluru FC tour party driven around without a minder or a government guide.