The Equalizer: A match on Mars

What made “The Twilight Zone” (1959–64) so memorable was its dependence on the unexpected — a malevolent, mysterious mixture of suspense and unfamiliarity that lurched its audiences into a perplexing fear and confusion of the unknown. “[The Twilight Zone] is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition,” says the show’s creator, Rod Sterling, on the outset of every episode. “And it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” 

Produced during the height of the Space Race, the show’s bread and butter was interplanetary travel. Astronauts land — though more often they crash — on alien surfaces inhabited by foreign beings. Cut off from Earth, the lonely team deals with what “The Twilight Zone” has in store.

Such was South Korea’s national soccer team’s visit to Pyongyang, North Korea on Oct. 15th. South Korea played at the Kim Il Sung stadium — named after Kim Jong Un’s grandfather — for a World Cup qualifying match against the North Korean national team in its first visit to the country since 1990

North Korean authorities allowed no South Korean press to attend the match. The game was played behind closed doors. There was no live feed. South and North Koreans alike had no idea what was going on in the game. One press official announced yellow cards, goals and substitutions.

The North Koreans allowed the South Koreans to train for one hour on its artificial turf field on Monday before the match on Tuesday. The South Koreans, almost all of whom train and play on real grass with their club teams, were wholly unprepared. The game ended 0–0. 

North Korea is ranked No. 115 and South Korea is ranked No. 39 in FIFA’s world rankings. Once the South Koreans returned to Seoul, the world learned what, exactly, happened in Pyongyang.

“It was like a war,” Vice-President of the Korea Football Association Choi Young-Il said. “Never have I seen such a game. The North Koreans screamed and gave deadly stares.”

Captain and Tottenham star Son Heung-min put it more bluntly: “To be honest, the game was so tough that I think we were very lucky already to be back with no one injured.” 

KBS, one of South Korea’s flagship news stations, reported that these actions were likely because “North Korea didn’t want to have any elements that South Korea preferred.” Even so, North Korea didn’t tell the Asian Football Association that the match would be played behind closed doors until reportedly a day before kickoff, even though they had made the decision a month before, according to KBS.

At a time of strained relations between the two countries, North Korea also probably didn’t want its superior neighbors to beat them at home in front of a home crowd. The match serves as a reminder that soccer was not, and never will be, free from the Cold War’s inexorable grasp. 

The World Cup that the two teams are attempting to qualify for is no less dubious or sinister. Qatar won the rights to host the tournament amid bribery claims against FIFA, and, in another twist, its mars-like geography is forcing planners to hold the tournament in the winter instead of the sun-blasted summer. “The Twilight Zone” in soccer is here for good.


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