The South Korean men's national football team on Sunday began its journey to North Korea for a key World Cup qualifying match, a contest expected to take place under unusual circumstances.
Coached by Paulo Bento, South Korea will first travel to Beijing on Sunday to pick up their North Korea visas and fly to Pyongyang on Monday. The much-anticipated Group H showdown between the Koreas is scheduled to kick off at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Kim Il-sung Stadium in the North Korean capital.
It will be the South Korean men's first football match in Pyongyang since a friendly in October 1990.
South Korea, world No. 37, and North Korea, ranked 113th, have both won their first two Group H matches, but South Korea are in first place thanks to a superior goal difference of plus-10 to North Korea's plus-3. South Korea enjoyed an 8-0 thrashing of minnows Sri Lanka last Thursday at home.
South Korean players depart for Beijing on Sunday. (Yonhap)
Bento sounded confident his team could pick up another win north of the border.
"I feel good. Our players are well prepared, and the team atmosphere is great," he told reporters at Incheon International Airport. "Above all, our players are in great physical condition.
The most important thing for us is to have everyone healthy before going on the road."
South Korea have recorded seven wins, eight draws and one loss against North Korea.
Bento said he hasn't done anything different in his preparations against North Korea and added, "We have to stick to our style of play."
"North Korea are a physical and aggressive team, and they can be especially dangerous on counterattacks," Bento added. "But North Korea also have holes that we can exploit, and I think we're prepared to do just that."
South Korea will only have one practice before the match.
Starting centerback Kim Young-gwon said he was particularly wary of North Korean forward Han Kwang-song, a 21-year-old property of Juventus' under-23 squad.
"Most of their attackers are fast, and Han Kwang-song stood out from that group," Kim said. "He's fast and he's a great dribbler."
A cloud of uncertainty had hung over the match during the lead-up. Seoul's Korea Football Association (KFA) only found out on Sept. 24 that the match would be held in Pyongyang as scheduled.
For weeks prior to that, North Korea had not responded to South Korea's repeated inquiries about traveling arrangements and other administrative matters, which led to speculation that the match could be moved to a third country.
North Korea's football federation has also remained silent on South Korea's calls for talks on allowing civilian spectators, journalists and broadcasting crew to visit Pyongyang for the match.
The unification ministry handling inter-Korean affairs said that it has approved trips to North Korea by a total of 55 personnel, including 25 players.
Any South Koreans seeking to visit North Korea should receive invitations from the North and also the Seoul government's approval for their trips to the communist state.
The U.N. Security Council earlier granted sanctions waivers for equipment necessary for the upcoming match in Pyongyang, though the ministry did not provide further information. Such equipment as broadcasting devices and laptop computers needed for journalists was not included on the exemption list.
Barring a dramatic development on the eve of the match, Bento's players will likely compete in a hostile environment with tens of thousands of partisan North Korean supporters in the stands and no South Korean fans there as a buffer. If there's no live broadcast of the contest, fans here will have to follow the match via online commentary on FIFA or Asian Football Confederation (AFC) websites.
Bento's team will leave Pyongyang for Beijing Wednesday afternoon and is scheduled to arrive home in the early hours of Thursday. (Yonhap)