From fake boots to flying missiles, Bengaluru FC’s nightmare trip to North Korea | football | Hindustan Times
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From fake boots to flying missiles, Bengaluru FC’s nightmare trip to North Korea

Bengaluru FC’s former Australia midfielder Erik Paartalu has given a vivid account of the AFC Cup trip to North Korean capital Pyongyang in an interview to bbc.co.uk

football Updated: Sep 22, 2017 12:28 IST
N. Ananthanarayanan
Bengaluru FC captain Sunil Chettri in action during the AFC Cup inter-zone semifinal match against 25 SC North Korea at Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru recently.
Bengaluru FC captain Sunil Chettri in action during the AFC Cup inter-zone semifinal match against 25 SC North Korea at Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru recently. (PTI)

Top Indian football club Bengaluru FC’s trip to North Korea last week to play Pyongyang’s 4.25 SC in the AFC Cup was more a journey into the unknown and an experience that would stay with the players for long.

Although the 2016 I-League champions, runners-up in the AFC Cup last year drew the return leg goalless after a 3-0 win at home to enter the inter-zone final, the Bengaluru FC squad got a glimpse of a nation in the thick of international controversy. AFC Cup is Asia’s second-rung club tournament.

The team’s departure for the September 13 contest was delayed by two days, which meant Bengaluru FC landed in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang barely 48 hours before kick-off at the cavernous May Day stadium.

Bengaluru FC’s former Australia midfielder Erik Paartalu has given a vivid account of the trip in an interview to bbc.co.uk.

North Korea is in the thick of repeated missile tests and threats to launch nuclear attacks on United States is hardly ideal for a sports team to visit the country.

Lonely Pyongyang airport

“It is one thing going to play somewhere where there may be a war going on, or is an unstable area, but North Korea is a different kettle of fish,” Paartalu is quoted as saying by the BBC.

“The Australian government had put out a warning urging people not to travel to North Korea, there was no consular or embassy there and there was the threat of a nuclear war.”

He added: “Once we arrived it was business; before we left, we were stepping into unknown.”

“Everything you see and hear on the news is different to what you see firsthand. It was a bit surreal landing in an almost empty airport,” Erik Paartalu said.

“It was an international airport (Pyongyang), but just one plane was landing. There was confusion with our bags and we had to spend two hours there. In that time, all the shop staff and immigration staff clocked off and all the lights went out. We were inside the airport all alone.”

In this undated photo distributed on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, attends what was said to be the test launch of an intermediate range Hwasong-12 missile at an undisclosed location in North Korea. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this image distributed by the North Korean government. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. (AP)

Meme on Korean leader

Apparently the squad members had to hand in their mobile phones on arrival for checks to be carried out.

“The funny thing was a few North Korea memes had been sent around in the group WhatsApp, poking fun at Kim Jong-un. Before we left we had told everyone to delete the messages; we were all sitting there waiting for someone to get caught.

“I was hoping they didn’t have Twitter, I had joked about meeting Kim for a drink,” the Australian, who has also played in China and Korea, was quoted as saying.

With the team’s bags, including kits, boots and balls, not arriving promptly, some players apparently had to buy boots from a seller at the hotel, who Paartalu says charged USD150-200 for “fake boots”.

He added: “We had no boots, training kits or balls for the first training session. The boots we bought were cheap quality, some were the wrong size. It was not what you expected from a professional environment. When we got back to the hotel from the first training session, everything was suddenly there.”

Paartalu tells the website only around 9,000 fans watched the game.

This undated combination picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017 shows a launching drill of the medium-and-long range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 at an undisclosed location. Kim vowed to complete North Korea's nuclear force despite sanctions, saying the final goal of his country's weapons development is "equilibrium of real force" with the United States, state media reported on September 16. (AFP)

Surreal match atmosphere

“During the warm-up the atmosphere was loud and boisterous. There were a couple of hundred kids in red tracksuits clapping and cheering, all choreographed perfectly,” the Australian was quoted as saying. “But when the game started there was silence…

“It did go through my head, ‘what happens to us if we win?’ The boys were joking that if we score we shouldn’t celebrate, or if we are 3-0 up to cool it, but it finished a respectable 0-0. I guess for the majority of fans in the stadium it was a draw, they may not even have known what happened in the first leg.”

Map showing the approximate path of a missile launched by North Korea. (AFP)

Missile flew over the hotel

The game was on September 13 (Wednesday) and the team could not leave North Korea until two days later. They did some light training and went on tours Paartalu said were “set up”.

On Friday morning (Sept 15) they awoke to news that North Korea had fired another ballistic missile across Japan.

“As we were checking out a guy told us if we had stood outside the hotel at 6am we would have seen the missile go over our hotel, it had been fired from the airport and the trajectory was clear for everyone to see.

“The boys looked at each other, like ‘let’s get out of here as quickly as possible’. When it got to that point, it hammered home ‘let’s just get the hell out of here’.”