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Soccer: Inter-Korean WCup qualifier played in empty Pyongyang venue

FIFA President Gianni Infantino, center, arrives at Pyongyang Airport in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Oct. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- South Korea soccer officials say they can't see a telecast of the historic World Cup qualifier in Pyongyang between their national team and North Korea, and think the game was proceeding at an empty Kim Il Sung Stadium.

    North Korea has kept out South Korean media and spectators and refused a live broadcast from the stadium, casting the game into media darkness in the South. The North had been expected to have unique home advantage in the 50,000-capacity stadium devoid of South Korean fans. But now the Seoul-based Korean Football Association is working under the impression there's no home crowd support, either

    "Photos sent by our employees show not a single person in the stands," KFA official Park Jae-sung said on Tuesday. "We are not sure why the North is doing this."

    The KFA sent two staff members to the stadium to watch the game, but ruled out live text updates on its website because of uncertainties in internet connection.

    It recommended that fans watch the KFA's social media accounts, where it planned to post any game information its employees manage to send from Pyongyang. Park said if that doesn't work out, the KFA would have to relay updates from the Asian Football Confederation or FIFA.

    "We have no idea how things will be at the stadium," Park said.

    The game was 0-0 at halftime, the KFA said.

    North Korea has agreed to provide a recording of the match to South Korean officials before they leave the North, which would allow South Korean networks to play the game on tape delay, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry, which deals with affairs with the North.

    The game is the first competitive meeting between the national men's teams in the North Korean capital, although the North hosted the South in a friendly in 1990.

    North Korea in recent months has severed virtually all cooperation with the South amid a standstill in nuclear negotiations with the United States, and repeatedly ignored the South's calls for discussions on media coverage issues and allowing South Korean cheer squads for Tuesday's game.

    "There was no response from the North, and we find this regrettable and sad," Unification Ministry spokesman Lee Sang-min said Monday.

    South Korea's two Group H matches against North Korea will be critical in qualifying for the World Cup. The second match between the Koreas is scheduled for June 4 in South Korea.

    Group H also includes Lebanon, Turkmenistan and Sri Lanka.

    South Korea has a stronger team on paper, led by Tottenham striker Son Heung-min.

    But Kim Hyun-tae, who was South Korea's goalkeeping coach at the World Cups in 2002 and 2010, said he was worried more about the Pyongyang stadium's artificial grass, where balls bounce and travel differently than natural grass surfaces.

    "It requires different touches in trapping, passing, shooting, crossing and avoiding tackles and players may find it difficult to adjust on the fly," Kim said. "This may also expose our players to larger risk of injuries, especially if North Korea decides to be physical."

    Previously, the Koreas faced each other four times during qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The games were initially scheduled as home and away, but North Korea rejected the idea of hoisting the South Korean flag and playing the South Korean anthem on its soil.

    Following an intervention by FIFA, the Koreas eventually agreed to relocate North Korea's home games to Shanghai. The matches resulted in three draws and one South Korea win before both Koreas qualified for South Africa.

    South Korea had dominated the past 16 matches with seven wins, one loss, and eight draws.

    The fate of the game in Pyongyang was uncertain until last month when the governing body of Asian soccer informed the KFA that the North decided it would host the qualifier as scheduled.

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