A journey behind the iron curtain

BFC returned from North Korea — following a 3-0 aggregate victory over 4.25 SC — with not just a place in the inter-zonal finals of the AFC Cup but also memories to last a lifetime. They were afforded a glimpse into a world few outsiders have seen, a world behind the thickest of iron curtains. 

Members of the traveling Bengaluru FC contingent on their day out in Pyongyang.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

On the morning of Bengaluru FC's flight out of Pyongang, this past Friday, the North Korean military launched a ballistic missile from just north of the city. It flew over Japan and landed in the Pacific Ocean, triggering international outrage. When BFC's players and staff discovered there had been a missile test — via Al Jazeera, one of only six TV channels available in their hotel rooms — they were mildly concerned. On the streets of DPR Korea's capital, though, there was no palpable excitement or anxiety.

BFC's media manager, Kunaal Majgaonkar, turned to the contingent's guide — 'minder' is a better word — for assurance. “It's not that we want war,” she told him. “But if a thief comes into your house, what will you do? Our leader is giving it back to America.”

BFC returned from North Korea — following a 3-0 aggregate victory over 4.25 SC — with not just a place in the inter-zonal finals of the AFC Cup but also memories to last a lifetime. They were afforded a glimpse into a world few outsiders have seen, a world behind the thickest of iron curtains. 

“It was strange, but surprising in good ways too,” says Majgaonkar. “The airport is pretty swanky. After we landed, they took each of our phones and went through every picture, every message. So that was a bit of a [shock].”

When the group landed in Pyongyang, it found that 15 bags of kit and equipment had not arrived from Beijing. After much pleading, a visit was arranged to a local sporting goods store which, to BFC's pleasant surprise, stocked shoes, balls, and jerseys from all the world's major manufacturers. 

The traveling party was lodged in the Yanggakdo International, a 47-storey hotel with a swimming pool, a billiards room, a tennis court, and a bowling alley. "It was luxury, but it was like stepping back in time," Majgaonkar says. Internet access (via cable only) was free but slow and restricted to six rooms. Cell-phones were useless. A guide stayed at all times with the visitors, who were forbidden from stepping out on their own. 

This lack of access to the outside world did have its upsides, though. “We enjoyed this whole time off WhatsApp and Facebook,” says Sunil Chhetri. “We got to spend so much time together. We played a lot of Ludo. It was fun being disconnected from everything.” Players were watching so much Al Jazeera English in their rooms that dinner-table conversation included the Rohingya crisis and the Catalonia referendum.

Trips to the match venue — the May Day Stadium, an intimidating 150,000-capacity behemoth — were tightly regulated. The day after the game, the team was taken on a 'guided tour' of Pyongyang, the attractions including a street full of high-rises apparently built by the army in only eight months. “The roads are very clean and wide,” says Majgaonkar. “There is a lot of order. There are skyscrapers but there's no one in them. It's a bit eerie.”