Football: N. Korea celebrates sweet revenge on Japan
In an evening that was always about far more than sport, North Korea's footballers Tuesday righted a multitude of perceived historical wrongs by beating ex-colonial rulers Japan in a World Cup qualifier.
The result of the match -- 1-0 to North Korea -- mattered little in footballing terms: Japan already have their place in the next round of the tournament and the communist country are out of the competition.
But for the tens of thousands of cheering fans packed into the Kim Il Sung stadium in Pyongyang, this was revenge -- for the away loss last month, for the snubs of daily diplomacy and for years of occupation and war.
The humiliation for the visiting Japanese, whose national team was playing its first match on North Korean turf in 22 years, started early.
Only 150 tickets were allocated to travelling supporters, each of whom was forced to surrender their mobile phone on entering isolated North Korea.
Dour immigration and customs officials in Pyongyang held up their footballing heroes when they arrived on Monday, keeping them at the airport for four hours after their flight touched down from Beijing.
Players more used to star treatment at home were told off for laughing and had contraband such as bananas, chewing gum, and instant noodles confiscated, the Nikkan Sports and Sports Nippon newspapers reported.
Three times during the lengthy delay the lights went out at the airport, the papers said, and the team was forced to begin their official practice hours late wearing hats and gloves in a bitterly cold stadium.
On match day, Japan's national anthem was drowned out by the boos of a capacity crowd that appeared far more excited by the game than its status as a dead rubber would normally merit.
When the North Korean anthem started up, the 50,000 fans sang enthusiastically and in unison, erupting into applause as the last notes faded away.
All around a stadium entirely devoid of advertisements stood men in the olive green uniform of North Korea's enormous military.
The raucous crowd cheered wildly every time the North Koreans pushed forward, with one entire stand of the stadium regularly transformed into a living poster as fans held up a red or yellow card to form a giant Korean-language slogan.
North Korea controlled the game throughout and were rewarded in the 50th minute, when a Pak Nam Chol header beat keeper Shusaku Nishikawa, electrifying the stadium and sending fans to their feet.
The eight yellow cards dished out to North Korean players for disciplinary offences over the course of a sometimes bad-tempered game will likely make little more than a footnote in their home country.
A Korean state broadcaster, whose 10 cameras were supplemented by two from the private Japanese TBS network, provided professional-looking coverage of the game but initially steered clear of anything other than the action on the pitch.
But as the game continued to flow North Korea's way, increasing numbers of close-ups of the crowd revealed groups of young women wearing heavy coats, smiling and cheering as they waved large national flags.
Other shots showed packs of young men all wearing the same colour tie and with similar haircuts watching intently.
Japan's band of travelling fans, many wearing the team's blue, could be seen corralled in one small area of the stadium and closely observed on three sides by austere-looking men in uniform.
They had previously been warned to tone down their usually raucous support for fear of upsetting their hosts. Heavily outnumbered, they were ushered away from the stadium soon after the final whistle.
Post-match interviews conducted by a travelling reporter from Japanese broadcaster TBS were watched over by uniform-clad men.
In the background the home spectators were keen to stay to enjoy their moment of victory, helped by men dressed in white who appeared to be choreographing sections of the crowd.
The last time the teams met, in September, it was Japan who walked away with the honours, beating the visitors in Saitama 1-0.
"It was a physical match in a tough environment," Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni told TBS after Tuesday's game.
"I suppose our opponents were also feeling pressure for this match against Japan. Their spirits might have showed in the number of yellow cards they received," he said.
Japan does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea, which still demands reparations from its former colonial rulers for wartime atrocities.
The communist regime is widely despised in Japan, where feelings run high over the unresolved abductions in the 1970s and 80s of young Japanese citizens who were used to train Pyongyang's spies in Japanese language and customs.
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