Fresh from a grueling trip to Pyongyang, North Korea for their AFC Cup Inter-zonal final second leg against 4.25 SC, Home United midfielder Aqhari Abdullah describes what those six days of isolation felt like.
After losing 2-0 to their North Korean counterparts in the first leg on August 21, the Protectors departed for Pyongyang, North Korea two days later to play in the second leg where they lost 9-1 at the Kim Il-sung Stadium.
A 16-hour transit flight journey finally saw them arrive in Pyongyang on Friday, and that was the start of a culture shock for the entire team.
“After clearing immigration, the entire team were subjected to bag checks. We had to open our luggage and take out every single item,” Aqhari told FOX Sports Asia. “From there, they itemised our stuff and made us sign off for everything in our bag, including our clothes.
“The other main thing that was a big problem for us was our meals. They provided meals but not everything was Halal and it was mostly Korean food that really didn’t suit us. So we relied on our own supplies of instant noodles, can food, biscuits and anything else we brought with us.
“To be honest, we all felt like we were in the 1980s and it is one of those trips that you will remember for the rest of your life. Can’t complain though because not everyone can claim to have played football in North Korea.”
With only one training session allowed each day, Aqhari and his teammates spent the other 22 hours of the day in their hotel rooms, with little access to the outside world.
“We weren’t allowed to come and go as we like so the only entertainment was to watch television in our hotel rooms. But there were only four local channels and we ended up spending most of our time resting and chatting. The good thing is this trip gave us a lot, a lot of time to bond as a team!
“They didn’t confiscate our mobile phones but without internet access and connection, it was quite pointless. We did however, get to make two phone calls back to Singapore on the third day and last day. Each call was one minute long and the club had to pay for it. It was really expensive so we kept it short and just informed our families we are safe.”
A Home United official was also taken aback by the treatment received in Pyongyang, especially the mandatory privileges that all host clubs are supposed to accord to the visiting team.
“We had sent our request to have Halal meals served as part of the requirements for our players but all the meals served were non-Halal and contained pork,” said a team official. “Like any other match day requirements, we asked for pre-match snacks like sandwiches, pasta and refreshments but they gave us pork biscuits. We had to rely on what we brought over which wasn’t sufficient for the entire team.
“The trip was pretty much whatever they said, we follow. From the time we arrived at the airport, we were given firm instructions to adhere to everything they said. We had no say in any arrangements.”
Despite the many negatives they faced in Pyongyang, Aqhari noted how their liason officers and facilities were really good.
He added: “Our liason officers were very nice and friendly. They tried to help us with what we needed so we were thankful for that.
“They also organised sightseeing tours for us and we got to see Pyongyang from a different perspective. When we were on these tours, they allowed us to use our phones to take pictures and that was pretty much the only entertainment we had.
“But credit where its due, their training and stadium facilities were top class and we had good training sessions.”
The Protectors’ AFC Cup journey came to an abrupt end in Pyongyang but Aidil Sharin’s boys can hold their heads high after becoming the first Singapore team to be crowned ASEAN champions.
The team will now shift their focus back to domestic duties but have a two-week break before going up against Hougang United on September 16 in the Singapore Premier League.