MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - The U.S. women’s soccer team beat North Korea on Tuesday against a backdrop of hostility between the global superpower and the isolated Asian dictatorship but U.S. fans and players said the Olympic spirit transcended politics.
One American player said the teams played ping-pong together at their hotel ahead of the match, conjuring scenes from the 1970s when so-called “ping-pong diplomacy” marked a thaw in U.S.-Chinese relations.
“We were in the same hotel as them and the girls were great... We played ping-pong and stuff like that,” Shannon Boxx told Reuters after the match, which the Americans won 1-0 thanks to a 25th minute goal from striker Abby Wambach.
The United States and North Korea have had fraught relations since the 1950-1953 Korean War, when the Americans fought alongside the capitalist South against the Communist North, which was backed by the Soviet Union and China.
The hostility is a live issue in world diplomacy.
North Korea was branded part of a so-called “axis of evil” by former U.S. President George W. Bush, and Washington is intent on frustrating the North’s nuclear armaments plans while Pyongyang is seemingly impervious to external pressure.
But the American soccer players said they had put politics out of their minds.
“The beautiful part about what we’re doing and it being the Olympics is we don’t have to worry about that,” Wambach told Reuters after coming off the pitch.
“This is where we can put our differences aside, go out on the pitch and play for glory and that’s what we’re here for.”
The North Koreans’ feelings were harder to gauge.
The players left the stadium without talking to journalists and coach Sin Ui Gun responded cautiously to questions, speaking through an interpreter.
“We are all thinking that against USA we shouldn’t lose, we should win,” said Sin. Pressed by a reporter on whether it was more disappointing to lose against the United States than against other teams, the coach nodded gravely but said nothing.
Sin wore a red badge on his lapel emblazoned with portraits of Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea who is still revered as its eternal president, and his son Kim Jong-il, who succeeded Kim and cultivated a cult of his own personality.
The match took place at Old Trafford, home of Premier League club Manchester United, where thousands of curious Britons and enthusiastic Americans piled into the stands.
A Reuters reporter was unable to ascertain whether there were any North Korean spectators present at all. If there were, it could only have been a tiny number who could not be heard.
Three women wearing matching dark blue tracksuits sat together in the stands and one of them was holding a North Korean flag. Asked whether they spoke English, the women shook their heads and a security guard immediately appeared and asked the reporter to leave. It remained unclear who the women were.
In contrast to last week, when the same North Korea team walked off the pitch before a match because giant screens accidentally displayed the flag of their South Korean foes, Tuesday’s match got off to a smooth start.
The American players smiled at supporters as they walked out onto the pitch, while the North Korean players looked straight ahead and did not smile. When the players shook hands just before kickoff, some of the Americans attempted smiles and eye-contact with their opponents, who remained stony-faced.
At the end of the match, the American players lingered on the pitch and linked hands to do a collective “worm dance” for the fans. After perfunctory handshakes, the North Koreans jogged off the pitch in a straight line.
The north of England was the scene of North Korea’s greatest sporting triumph abroad, during the 1966 World Cup, when the men’s soccer team knocked out favorites Italy in one of the greatest upsets ever. But history was not repeated on Tuesday as the Americans, the defending Olympic champions, dominated.
It would be difficult to imagine a sporting contest between two more different nations.
On the one hand, a global economic powerhouse whose cultural influence can be felt across the globe, a society hooked on 24-hour media and the Internet, a land of plenty where the number one threat to public health is the high obesity rate.
On the other, an impenetrable fortress run by a dynasty of dictators, cut off from the rest of the planet by barbed wire and strict controls over any form of communication, an economic disaster zone where millions go short of food.
During the match, mass chants of “USA! USA!” repeatedly boomed around the stadium. At one point, a group of British fans apparently in the mood to annoy the Americans shouted “Korea! Korea!” but there was no other audible cheering for the Asians.
Some of the Americans in the stands were keen to show respect to their opponents.
“The Olympics is about sportsmanship and athletics, it’s not about politics,” said Oliver Spandow, from Florida, who was cheering for the Americans with his wife and three children. The whole family had the Stars and Stripes painted on their faces.
“It’s important to show good sportsmanship, that’s what we’ve told the kids. The North Korean players have worked hard to be here just like our team and they deserve to be here,” said Kristin Spandow, Oliver’s wife.
Some U.S. fans, however, said the match did have political overtones because of who their team were playing.
“It definitely adds a little bit of extra drama to this match, like in the Cold War when the Americans would play the Russians,” said Californian Christina Gustafson, sporting a shirt and strings of beads in patriotic red, white and blue.
North Korea is an impressive fifth in the Olympics medals table so far, drawing enthusiastic coverage from the official news agency, KCNA.
“DPRK People Seized with Joy over Successes in Olympiad,” said one headline on Tuesday. The DPRK is the acronym of the North’s full name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“As the DPRK flag was hoisting higher than others, I got so excited that I could hardly repress my tears rolling down my cheek,” said Jong In-ho, a teacher at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, according to KCNA.
Additional reporting by Ju-min Park in Seoul; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Ken Ferris