But it seemed the prospect of a possible defeat by their fierce southern rivals was too awful for the North Korean leadership to contemplate, since they even denied their own fans the right to attend the game.
It was the first competitive men’s soccer match between the two Koreas to be played in Pyongyang, following a friendly played in 1990 and a women’s Asian Cup qualifying match played in 2017.
Photos showed empty stands but did at least show the South Korean flag flying in the stadium, which is named after the hermit country’s first leader Kim Il Sung, grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un.
During qualification for the 2010 World Cup, North Korea chose to host two games against South Korea in Shanghai, after refusing to hoist the South Korean flag and play the South Korean anthem on its soil.
There was no live coverage of the game, but the North Korean authorities promised to give the South Korean team a “DVD containing video footage” of the match just before they leave Pyongyang on Wednesday, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification announced.
The surreal nature of the tie was only underlined by the fact that FIFA President Gianni Infantino was in attendance.
In March, Infantino endorsed a South Korean proposal to submit a joint bid with North Korea to jointly host the 2023 Women’s World Cup. But the following month, Seoul announced it was submitting a solo bid to host the tournament after the North Korean authorities failed to respond to its proposals, with FIFA saying it would continue discussions with Pyongyang.
North Korea also failed to respond to South Korean requests to send media to cover Tuesday’s match, or even to send a cheerleading squad, with relations between the two Koreas sharply deteriorating this year after an improvement in 2018.
The NK News service, which is based in Seoul, reported that a few tickets had been sold to foreign diplomats. Marked “complimentary,” the tickets were in fact sold for $50-$60.
“For sporting fans worldwide, hopefully the reason Infantino is going is to personally flag concerns about the restrictive way DPRK authorities have gone about hosting this match,” said Chad O’Carroll, founder of NK News, using the abbreviation for the country’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“The manner in which inter-Korean relations so often get politicized suggests any initiative to jointly host major international sporting risks being extremely challenging from a logistics point of view,” he added.
Although South Korea is ranked No. 37 in the world compared to North Korea’s 113, the team may be happy to come away with a tie. Players were only given an hour to practice on the artificial turf at the stadium on Monday after flying in via Beijing. The ball bounces differently on artificial turf than on the usual grass pitch.
The North Korean team hasn’t lost at Kim Il Sung Stadium since 2005, when it failed to qualify for the World Cup in a match against Iran and angry North Korean fans hurled bottles and cans at referees and the Iranian players.
South Korea leads Asian Qualifying Group H after two wins and this tie. North Korea is second after two wins and a tie, but with an inferior goal difference.
According to the Korea Football Association’s social media accounts, two players from each side were given yellow cards. The Swedish ambassador tweeted short videos of the teams observing both national anthems, and of a short altercation involving players from both sides.
Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.