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North Korea's silent football matches

Spectators at a football match in North Korea

Foreign visitors to North Korea are allowed to attend sports matches alongside their minders. But football in this secretive republic has little in common with the passion and glamour of Europe's major leagues.

The game was a sell-out, though you would never have guessed it.

As we entered the 50,000-seater Kim Il-Sung Stadium below the watchful eye of the Eternal President and Great Leader, not forgetting his son, the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il, there was no-one to be seen.

There were no queues, no turnstiles and certainly no hotdog stands or programme sellers.

But once inside it was a different matter. Every seat was taken and row upon row of men sat silently, wearing identical dark suits and red ties, everyone sporting a tiny enamel badge on their left breast.

No, not of Pyongyang FC, but of the Great Leader himself.

The artificial pitch looked immaculate under the spring morning sun. Kick off was at half past nine.

Maybe it was the early start but there were no chants and no flags or scarves in sight, just a quiet murmur around the darkened rows of seats.

Many of the fans were soldiers in green uniforms and broad-brimmed hats.

I do not know if they were under orders to attend but some were quietly reading paperbacks and showed no interest in the game.

The opposition, the crack army outfit Amrokgang, looked stronger in the first half but it was a scrappy match.

Pyongyang fought back and won a penalty though you would be hard pressed to know that from the reaction of the crowd. There was none.

My travelling buddies decided to inject some old-style terrace atmosphere of our own and we chanted: "One nil to the referee, one nil to the referee."

The dozen or so Westerners who had joined us in the VIP box - at 30 euros a seat, hard currency only please - laughed at us.

One or two even joined in as we grew bolder: "Pyongyang ooh, ooh! Pyongyang ooh, ooh!"

But the locals just stared at us. In a land where it appears you must ask permission to speak, this show of individuality, of spontaneity, was not seen as rude, or aggressive. They just stared blankly at us.

Image caption Former national team manager Kim Jong-Hun claimed to receive tactical advice from the Supreme Leader

I think they thought we were, well... a little odd.

Our tour party was closely monitored at the game. Two guides led from the front while a mysterious "Mr L" who hardly spoke, brought up the rear.

It was never clear if he was just minding us or was making sure our guides stuck to the strict party line that all was rosy in this socialist utopia.

The national side uses the official name of the country, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Their greatest footballing moment came in the 1966 World Cup when they beat Italy by two goals to nil to reach the quarter finals. They also qualified for the 2010 finals.

At the last World Cup, in South Africa, North Korea's coach, Kim Jong-Hun, told the media that he received "regular tactical advice during matches" from Kim Jong-Il "using mobile phones that are not visible to the naked eye" and purportedly developed by the Supreme Leader himself.

But the team is struggling at the moment and has not qualified for next year's World Cup in Brazil. Its last game was a goalless draw in a friendly against fellow communists Cuba.

Back on the pitch at the Kim Il-Sung stadium, Amrokgang had got one back.

Another penalty, though why the referee had to confer with the linesman is anyone's guess - the Pyongyang striker was taken down five yards inside the box.

The goal caused little reaction. The crowd stayed quiet. Neither manager ventured out of the dugout, there was no high-fiving, no pats on the back from the players.

Image caption Kim Il-sung Stadium seats 50,000 spectators but the mood is very different from that at Western stadia

Now I like to watch controlled football, but not quite like this.

Surprise, surprise! There was some half-time entertainment.

A brass band piped up behind the goal. But immediately another band behind the opposite goal struck up. They were playing different tunes, though no-one seemed to care.

The match went into stoppage time. Pyongyang were pressing hard.

The crowd, at last, seemed to rouse themselves, if only a little, at the prospect of another goal.

And finally, Pyongyang scored with a low shot following some good passing.

It was the very last kick of the most bizarre game I had ever watched and it came in the 94th minute.

Maybe the referee was under orders to ensure a home win in the Great Leader's stadium.

I would like to think the crowd went home happy.

But with no emotion one way or the other on the faces of the soldiers and party faithful as they marched silently out, I just couldn't tell.

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