Hope turned to anguish for red-shirted crowds in Seoul and Tokyo as North Korea’s first World Cup finals campaign in 44 years ended in humiliation — but the dream of Korean unity won out among some fans.
Portugal’s 7-0 annihilation of the team from the isolated North drew millions of South Korean viewers Monday night with a quarter of the total TV audience tuning in, according to AGB Nielsen Media Research.
But north of the border, when the scoreline widened to 4-0, the football expert with Pyongyang’s Korean Central TV stopped commentating and the broadcast ended immediately after the final whistle, monitors in Seoul said.
Despite Pyongyang’s recent threat to turn Seoul into a “sea of flame”, some 1,000 people rallied at the Bong Eun Sa Buddhist temple in the South Korean capital to cheer on the communist nation’s side.
They chanted players’ names, shouted “One Korea!” and waved “unification” flags, a blue silhouette of the entire peninsula on a white background.
“We are dreaming of a day when (the North’s striker) Jung Tae-Se scores on a cross from (the South’s) Park Ji-Sung. When that day comes, Korea will be unified,” the head monk, Myungjin, told journalists.
But the initial enthusiasm yielded to distress, with supporters exhaling collective groans of disappointment as North Korea wilted under a barrage of second-half goals from Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal.
Some spectators sitting in the temple parking lot beat the ground with their fists.
“Before the break, it looked like the North might triumph. Then my heart sank as North Korea began crumbling,” Kim Yong-Woo said on YTN TV. “This is because we are one people.”
Some Internet users expressed reservations about cheering for the North when memories of the March sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, with the loss of 46 lives are still vivid.
Tensions are high on the Korean peninsula after the South accused its neighbour of torpedoing the warship and announced reprisals.
“You must restrain yourselves from cheering on North Korea, considering the agonised feelings of the relatives of the Cheonan victims,” one user wrote.
But another user said sport must not be tainted by politics.
“Suppporting the North Korean football team does not mean supporting North Korea’s regime or praising its wrong behaviour.”
Sociology professor Chun Sang-Jin of Seoul’s Sogang University said sporting events tended to arouse nationalistic sentiments among Koreans on different sides of the border despite political tensions.
“South Koreans root for North Korea as sporting events cause them to forget about cross-border tensions and stir up a sense of brotherhood,” Chun told AFP.
According to a pro-Pyongyang newspaper, North Koreans cheered South Korea’s victory over Greece in their opening World Cup match “without exception”.
Encouraged by a fighting performance against Brazil last week, North Korea showed the Portugal match live on TV. But the drubbing was all too much for the Korean Central TV summariser, who went mute at 4-0.
The result meant North Korea have no chance of progressing to the later stages in South Africa, unlike their stunning run to the quarter-finals in 1966.
Some 500 cheering fans — part of an estimated 100,000 pro-Pyongyang Koreans living in Japan — donned red T-shirts and waved North Korean flags in a stifling hot school gymnasium in Tokyo.
“Win, win, Cho-sen (Korea)!” the fans shouted, before the goals piled up and anticipation turned to misery. As in Seoul, however, Korean unity was the clear winner for some in the crowd.
“I regret the result of today’s game, but the Koreans can unite like this when the chance comes,” said Lee Nami, an 18-year-old university student.