The latest news and opinion from the East
In South Korea on the afternoon of April 1, there were a few April Fool’s jokes making the rounds. Among the "Hiddink to return" reports was the story that because of the recent tensions between the two Koreas, their 2010 World Cup qualifier scheduled for that evening would be called off.
This continued for a few hours: many Asian nations have April Fool’s Day but don’t have the noon cut-off point, which can make for a long day. Little did the pranksters know just how close they came to being right. Just hours before the evening kick-off at Seoul World Cup Stadium, North Korea were demanding that the match be postponed and rescheduled and relocated to a third nation.
And defeated head coach Kim Jong Hun gave surprised reporters at the post-match press conference a reason with which Tottenham fans may sympathise. (Fitting, really: for some reason, Kim reminds me of ex-Spurs boss Keith Burkinshaw. I half-expected him to point a finger and say "There used to be a football club over there.")
“This game shouldn’t have been played,” he said. “Jong Tae Se [star striker, aka 'The People’s Rooney’] and goalkeepers Ri Myung Guk and Kim Myong Gil were not in a condition to play.
“After training yesterday, and after eating at the hotel provided by Korea Republic authorities, they contracted diarrhoea,” he added, neglecting to say if it was lasagne-related or not.
He may not have mentioned it at all had North Korea not lost 1-0 to a late free-kick. The defeat sent the 1966 World Cup quarter-finalists slipping into second place in their group – still good enough to qualify automatically, but only just.
In it pops, the game's only goal
They will probably need four points from their last two games, at home to Iran and away at Saudi Arabia to make a second appearance on the global stage. South Korea are now top and looking good for a seventh in a row.
Kim’s mood wasn’t helped by the fact that Jong, who was well enough to play, seemingly scored with a powerful header just after the break. The ball perhaps crossed the line before it was clawed away by Lee Woon-jae in the southern goal.
A member of the away coaching staff was given his marching orders by the referee for his protests. Kim saved his complaints for after the match.
“Shouldn’t the referee be fair? He ignored the fact that the ball clearly crossed the line. It's the first time I've seen this,” he said, reading from a statement. He then refused to answer any questions and left, much to the surprise of the assembled press pack.
"April Fool's, right?"
South Korea FA and FIFA staff weren't about to comment on the goal that was or wasn’t, but they were quick to answer northern claims about food poisoning, which they said were "Not convincing".
Kim Joo-Sung, the chief of the Korean Football Association’s international department, was happy to give a different version of events to reporters.
"After the North raised the issue, we took the matter to the Asian Football Confederation and the FIFA," he said. "FIFA rejected the North's request and ordered the game be staged as scheduled."
The official said that a professional sports doctor examined the affected players and found little wrong. More detailed examinations, including blood tests, were refused by North Korea.
"The food and beverages are provided by sponsors of the AFC," Kim added. "The KFA is not responsible for them. Also, the North Korean officials had inspected food beforehand. If it really had been food poisoning, there would have been more players with similar symptoms."
It was all quite sad. For 90 minutes the focus had been on a normal game of football, but – this being North and South Korea – things never stay normal for long.
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