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North and South Korea play first men’s soccer match on North Korean soil in almost 30 years

For the first time in almost three decades, North and South Korea‘s men’s football teams faced each other in Pyongyang.

The FIFA World Cup Qualifier match — which was held at Kim Il-sung Stadium on Tuesday evening local time — saw the two national teams draw 0-0.

It was the first time the sides have played in North Korea since a friendly match in 1990. The last time they met was in Japan in 2017, when South Korea won 1-0 against North Korea as part of the East Asian Cup.

The match comes amid renewed tensions on the peninsula, which worsened recently after hints last year that the relationship between the two countries could be thawing.

Although football is incredibly popular in both countries, the draw represents a good result for the North, which entered the match as the underdog. South Korea is ranked 37 in the world — much higher than North Korea’s 113 ranking.

Despite the historic nature of the event, South Korean media and fans were prohibited from attending and the game was not broadcast live. Instead, their only choice was to monitor into FIFA’s website for occasional, written updates.

At a press briefing Monday, a spokesman for the South Korean Unification Ministry, Lee Sang-min, said that officials had attempted to “sound the North out several times” to arrange fan access and broadcasting rights but had not received a response.

It wasn’t just South Korean fans who missed out. Foreign tourists who had traveled to North Korea for the match were also prevented from attending, according to tour groups.

Rich Beal, a tour manager from Koryo Group, which operates tours to North Korea, said the company’s group wasn’t at the stadium for the match. They were told they weren’t able to attend the game, although they were given no reason. “It is very disappointing,” he told CNN in an email.

Young Pioneer Tours — which organizes tours from China to North Korea — also said its tour group of 10 people were not allowed to watch the game.

Foreign tourists were interested in attending as they were intrigued to see how North Koreans embraced football culture, said Rowan Beard, the North Korean tour manager for Young Pioneer Tours.

“The Koreans take football super seriously, it’s the most popular sport by miles and their knowledge on football leagues and players outside of North Korea is quite impressive,” he told CNN.

South Korea has qualified for the FIFA world cup on multiple occasions, and reached the semifinals of the FIFA World Cup in 2002. By comparison, the furthest the North Korean team got was when it reached the quarterfinals in 1966.

But North Korea’s current squad has a star in 21-year-old Han Kwang Song, who plays professionally for Italian football club Juventus.

Ahead of the game South Korea’s star player Son Heung-min said that he was just focused on winning. “The fact that fans can’t come is a heavy blow to us,” he said. “I hope we can prepare well for such atmosphere and come back with good results.”

The teams will need to maintain their top two spots during this qualifying round to move onto the next qualifying round — and keep their dreams alive of making it to the 2022 World Cup. In theory, both teams could qualify.

While the match in Pyongyang is significant for the men’s teams, the women’s teams faced off much more recently. In 2017, the North and South Korean women’s teams played each other in Pyongyang in an Asian Cup qualifier game.

CNN

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