South Korea Sri Lanka Soccer World Cup
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Son Heung-min may be the biggest soccer name in South Korea and across Asia but the Tottenham forward's fame struggles to penetrate North Korea. As the two neighbors meet in a 2022 World Cup qualifier on Tuesday, the only attention the English Premier League star can expect in Pyongyang is from the home team's defenders.
The "Korean Derby" is the first Pyongyang meeting between North Korea and South Korea since a friendly game in 1990. It is also the first-ever competitive fixture north of the 38th parallel between the two countries that remain in a technical state of war.
The EPL is the most popular international league in South Korea, but little-watched in internationally isolated North Korea.
"I don't think the (North Korean) fans know much about Son Heung-min but the players know him well," An Yong Hak, a former North Korea international, told The Associated Press. "Fans in Pyongyang are looking forward to the game. It is not just the opponent, but this is an important World Cup qualifier and if we win it will be a great result."
An played in all four qualifiers between the two teams ahead of the 2010 World Cup. South Korea won one match, with draws in the other three — two of which took place in Shanghai and not Pyongyang at the request of North Korea.
North Korea has home advantage with the 50,000 capacity Kim Il Sung Stadium expected to be full. "It is a big stadium. North Koreans love football and will make plenty of noise," An said.
North Korea has not allowed any journalists or fans from South Korea to make the trip to Pyongyang. Requests from the Korea Football Association in Seoul for players and officials to travel directly across the Demilitarized Zone, which divides the neighbors, were also denied. It is unclear whether there will even be a live broadcast from the game.
On the field, there are other issues such as the artificial grass in the stadium. Arriving in Pyongyang the day before the game, South Korea will have just one training session on the surface.
Despite the challenges, players sounded confident as they left Seoul for the North Korean capital via Beijing where they have been told to leave their mobile phones until their return.
"All we are thinking about is coming back with three points," said midfielder Lee Jae-sung. "There's no fear. There are always difficult away games like Turkmenistan, Lebanon and Iran and we don't think this will be any more difficult than those."
In 17 previous meetings, South Korea has lost only once, the defeat coming in its sole previous visit to Pyongyang.
This time too, South Korea, aiming for a 10th successive World Cup appearance, is the favorite headed into the game.
South Korea sits top of Group H in the second round of qualification with six points after two games. It's above North Korea on goal difference.
Only the winner from each of the eight five-team groups and the four best second-placed teams progress to the next stage.
"We both went to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup," said An. "I hope we can go to Qatar together too."