In one of the most anticipated football matches of the year in Asia, South Korea and North Korea will square off in Pyongyang in a crucial World Cup qualifying match this week.
The kickoff for the Group H match in the second round of the Asian qualification for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Kim Il-sung Stadium in the North Korean capital. It will be the first trip to the North by a South Korea men's national football team since a friendly in October 1990, and this week's match comes at a time of heightened tensions on the divided peninsula following a series of North Korean missile launches.
The athletes will try to stick to their business on the pitch and keep things as normal as possible, but it's nearly impossible to separate sports from politics whenever the two Koreas meet. The uncertainty that surrounded the buildup to the match, a potential source of distraction for both sides, suggested there would be nothing normal about the contest.
But football first: South Korea, world No. 37, and North Korea, ranked 113th, have both won their first two matches in Group H, but the Taeguk Warriors are in first place thanks to superior goal difference, plus-10 to plus-3. South Korea routed Sri Lanka 8-0 at home last Thursday. North Korea played both of their matches in September, beating Lebanon and then Sri Lanka by 2-0 and 1-0.
South Korea have so far posted seven wins, eight draws and one loss against North Korea. Five of their past seven meetings ended in a draw. South Korea scored just three goals in those seven matches, and got an own goal courtesy of Ri Yong-chol in a 1-0 win in their most recent meeting, at the 2017 East Asian Football Federation E-1 Football Championship in Japan.
Much as other underdogs that have faced South Korea so far, North Korea will likely sit back on defense and look for counterattack opportunities. Both South Korea head coach Paulo Bento and center back Kim Young-gwon said they were wary of North Korea's counterattack capabilities, with Kim singling out Juventus' U-23 forward Han Kwang-song as a dangerous attacker.
South Korea will try to build on the momentum from their huge win over Sri Lanka, with lanky forward Kim Shin-wook coming off a four-goal performance. Sri Lanka predictably crowded their own zone in hopes of keeping South Korea from embarrassing them, but Kim, at 196 centimeters, was the key that unlocked whatever door Sri Lanka tried to shut close. He scored twice with a header over smaller defenders and twice with his feet.
Captain Son Heung-min chipped in two goals and played 60 minutes, his lowest in a match since Bento took over last fall. He should be fresh and ready to attack the defense with his typical precision and efficiency.
In the second qualifying round, the top two teams from each of the eight groups, plus four-best runners-up, will advance to the third round. South Korea are trying to make it to their 10th consecutive World Cup, and North Korea are seeking their first appearance since 2010.
Now about other matters: It wasn't until late September that South Korea learned the match would take place in Pyongyang as scheduled. With North Korea not responding to Seoul's inquiries on the logistics for the match, having the Korean derby in a third country -- of which there is precedent -- didn't appear out of the question.
Bento had hoped to have his team cross the border by land to save travel time, but instead they had to go through Beijing first to pick up their North Korean visas and stay overnight. They're scheduled to land in Pyongyang later Monday. Bento's team only settled on that itinerary last Thursday, five days before the match.
As of Sunday evening, North Korea hadn't authorized visits by South Korean spectators, journalists and broadcasting crew.
According to Seoul's Korea Football Association, its North Korean counterpart has only said green-lighting trips by South Koreans other than the football players was not in its purview.
South Koreans seeking to visit North Korea must receive invitations from Pyongyang and also the South Korean government's approval.
The UN Security Council has granted sanctions waivers for equipment necessary for the upcoming match in Pyongyang, though the unification ministry in Seoul did not provide further information.
Broadcasting devices and laptop computers needed by journalists were not included on the exemption list.
Without an 11th-hour deal, the match won't be broadcast live to a South Korean audience, who would then have to follow online commentary on FIFA or Asian Football Confederation websites.
But both sites only provide information on goal scorers and substitutions, which will leave the football-crazed nation hungry for more.
The scene at Kim Il-sung Stadium will likely be hostile for South Korean players, who will probably be surrounded by a huge gathering of partisan fans with no South Korean supporters as a buffer.
They will stay in Pyongyang overnight and return home, again via Beijing, early Thursday. (Yonhap)